Chocolates, radishes and the energy vampires

Small garden radishI know … you’re probably thinking I chose the title of this post by throwing a handful of those little word magnets against our fridge. Close, but not quite. Actually, I’m reading Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, and he cites a study on willpower that I think applies to our work on the Founder’s Mentality®, particularly regarding the twin dangers of increased complexity and the rise of the “energy vampire.”  His story supplies the chocolates and radishes. I supply the energy vampire.

First, let me lay out the basic argument. You may recall the famous 1972 Stanford experiment on willpower involving kids and marshmallows. Four-year-olds were put in a room with a marshmallow in front of them and offered a deal: If they could hold off eating that marshmallow for about 15 minutes after the researcher left the room, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows on his or her return. As any parent could have predicted, some of the kids held out to receive two marshmallows, but many couldn’t help themselves and ate the one marshmallow right away. The more important finding was that the kids with the most willpower (those who held out for two) turned out to be higher achievers later in life. The researchers concluded that willpower is a skill and that, once developed, it can benefit many areas of life.

There have been multiple challenges to this idea. One, a 2012 University of Rochester study, concluded that little kids would hold out longer for two marshmallows if they believed that the promise of more marshmallows was a legitimate one. In other words, strong willpower resulted from both nature (an innate skill to be mastered) and nurture (it depends on whether a child learns to trust promises over time).

Duhigg cited another study on willpower—this one performed in 1996 by psychologist Roy Baumeister—that involved radishes and foods that contain chocolate. The researchers assembled a group of victims (test subjects) and asked half the participants to each sit in a room with both radishes and chocolate-flavored confections. They were told to eat as much of the chocolate as they wanted but asked not to touch the radishes. Researchers then directed the other half of the participants to eat all the radishes and not touch the chocolate. Again, it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that the “Chocolates” enjoyed the experiment and the “Radishes” didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. After the experiment’s eating phase, the researchers asked each group to work on a puzzle (which turned out to be impossible to complete). The Chocolates were far more patient and tried to work on the puzzle for a while. The Radishes had far less patience and gave up earlier.

The study concluded that willpower is like a muscle—it can be strengthened but can also be exhausted. The Radishes in the study had used up all their willpower fighting the urge to eat chocolate. When it came time for the second test, they were fed up. The Chocolates didn’t expend any willpower as they stuffed their faces with chocolate and were therefore ready to face the test.

I think this is a useful lens for looking at the effects of complexity and energy vampires on organizations. For your people, the presence of complexity and energy vampires is like a bowl of radishes—it wears away at willpower. Think about the “king,” the person in charge of delivering your promises to customers every day. It takes huge willpower to do this well, to delight a customer and to recover if your customer promise is broken. You rely on your kings all day to have the willpower necessary to do this.

So ask yourself: As your kings deal with the rest of your organization, is their day spent eating radishes or chocolates? Do they use up all their willpower fighting against the organization or battling energy vampires that block their ability to serve customers? Or are they supported all day by folks enabling them to serve customers better? The scary thing is, I’ll bet if you drop in on the front line of your company and start asking about their day, you won’t be smelling a lot of chocolate cookies.

This entry was posted in Lost voices from the front line, The complexity doom loop by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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