Want Better Change? Don't Eat the Marshmallows!

Jeff Cole

Marshmallows in a cup
If you’re looking for a sure-fire recipe for an ulcer, I’ve got just the ticket – accept a job in a company where you have to initiate any sort of change. Better yet – be on the receiving end. Accept any job anywhere and try to go for more than two weeks without some email, text, tweet, manager, or anonymous staff guy from corporate bounding out of left field to smack you in the face with a shovel full of change.
People today can barely survive in the chaos that is corporate life, let alone assimilate higher volumes of change coming faster and getting more complex by the nanosecond. Why is it then that some people tend to thrive in this whitewater of confusion while others are crushed by the emotional and mental weight of it all?

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I’m sure Dr. Phil and others would have several great answers to that. A number of authors will tell you that one’s ability to stay focused and disciplined during times of change bode well for success. But, is there anything that can possibly predict, early on, if someone is destined to be naturally focused and self-disciplined? It just so happens there is and it involves eating marshmallows…
In the 1960’s Stanford researcher Michael Mischel started a longitudinal study on self-discipline (the ability to delay immediate gratification in exchange for longer term gains). To grossly oversimplify, he offered hungry 4-year-olds a marshmallow, but if they could wait for the experimenter to return from running an errand in 15-20 minutes, they could have two marshmallows. The results? About one third ate the marshmallow right away. Some waited longer, with around one-third waiting the full time and receiving two marshmallows. So what? As it turns out, this study followed those groups into young adulthood. The group that was able to wait the full time and demonstrate self-discipline had dramatically better life outcomes such as higher incomes, career satisfaction, persistence in the face of uncertainty, and other life measures.
Is your company full of "eaters" or "waiters"? In today’s society, "eaters" are prevalent and often easy to spot – they’re the ones paying enormous cell bills, carrying $6 cups of coffee, and wondering why they don’t have enough money. People who can’t take their eyes off a mobile device long enough to complete a cogent sentence and wondering why their boss thinks they are not productive. The bar today is set mighty low in a lot of organizations. Demonstrating any form of self-discipline and focus can set a person apart from the pack and rocketing toward a path to career success.
The prescription? Driving process change within an organization population that demonstrates some degree of self-discipline will go much smoother. They can grasp the notion that the short-term pain they experience in making the process changes will lead to greater rewards later and can focus on achieving that. What if your audience is not self-disciplined? The good news is that self-discipline is a learnable characteristic.
There are a number of good programs on the market, but you can’t count on that particular audience to seek them out and complete them on their own. They will need to be managed through the process. It’s a missing part of many corporate training curriculums. Many quality and process improvement professionals don’t even have it on their radar screens. However, it’s one topic that can pay great dividends later by establishing a solid foundation for executing future changes efficiently and effectively.
Happy change – if you made it to the end of this column, please proudly go forth and enjoy your two marshmallows!