Insight 7

Willpower needs exercise, like a muscle.

“The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially it has taught him willpower.”

An experiment at the University of Albany where participants were put in a room with radishes and cookies found that the participants who were allowed to eat the cookies more eagerly attempted what was, in fact, an impossible puzzle. Those who had spent just five minutes resisting the cookies gave up more easily on the puzzle. Why? They had already exhausted their willpower muscle. This principle explains everything from failed diets to why most extramarital affairs occur after work.

In order to strengthen their employees’ willpower, Starbucks offered them free gym memberships. They quickly found, however, that lack of willpower had an inertia that continued after work and few employees actually went to the gym.

Internal studies showed that most lapses in customer service occurred during moments of stress, such as during a flood of orders or with an angry customer. Employees spent all day using their willpower, but in moments of duress they gave up.

Using behavioral science, Starbucks discovered that the key to circumventing a customer service meltdown was giving employees very detailed systems in order to deal with stress triggers. By introducing their “LATTE” method, employees now had a system for dealing with times of stress, even when their willpower was exhausted.

  • Listen to the Customer
  • Acknowledge their complaint
  • Take action by solving the problem
  • Thank them
  • Explain why the problem occurred

Now, instead of reacting with volatility, employees had a game plan to deal with stressful situations. Through habits, partners could learn how to approach a customer who was in a rush versus one who needed more personal attention.

Studies have also shown that a sense of control makes a key difference in conserving willpower. Giving employees more control over small elements of their job, even something as simple as what their uniform looks like, can boost their self-discipline. According to one of the University of Albany researchers, “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. In both cases, people ignored the cookies. But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.”

“For companies and organizations, this insight has enormous implications. Simply giving employees a sense of agency – a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs. One 2010 study at a manufacturing plant in Ohio, for instance, scrutinized assembly-line workers who were empowered to make small decisions about their schedules and work environment. They designed their own uniforms and had authority over shifts. Nothing else changed. All the manufacturing processes and pay schedules were the same. Within two months, productivity at the plant increase by 20 percent. Workers were taking shorter breaks. They were making fewer mistakes. Giving employees a sense of control improved how much self-discipline they brought to their jobs.”


VIDEO 7: Watch Charles explain how an experiment with marshmallows helped scientists understand the science of willpower.

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