Rethinking my strategies on self-control

Have you ever had a week where there have been a plethora of articles, links, and thoughts all tied to a common theme that pop up? This week I keep coming across articles and posts like this one by Seth Godin about self-control. At the same time I have, as a parent, being struggling with getting my son to do two distinct but time-related tasks, go to bed on time and go to school on time. Seth’s post asks a good question. why do we necessarily assume that obedience leads to a gradual shift to self-control? If I can get my son to do as I say and go to bed on time and leave for school on time will he eventually start to want to do it himself? And why for that matter does it even matter to me so much that my three (almost four) year old obeys these time bound rules? Taking it out of the home what does this say about my view point about self-control and what I expect from other people?

Now I know that I hate being told to obey and follow the rules. I frequently share a story about how I was late for work 2 minutes on Christmas day while working for NOVA and heard about it at all of my performance evaluations up until the day I left. After the first evaluation I basically stopped caring or exercising self-control as long as I didn’t get in trouble. After 18 months I moved to China in part because I wanted to go to a country where being late by a couple minutes wasn’t viewed as key criteria for access to training, pay raise or promotion. That’s right, I physically moved from one country to another because being told to obey certain rules and being punished for not following the rules led to me hating my job.

So why do I assume it will work with anyone else, much less my son? Particularly when he is basically a pint sized version of me when it comes to rules? That may well be what is bothering me most, I know what doesn’t work and I do it anyway and that makes my frustration all the greater. Particularly as I realize that he has a lot more ahead of him in life with people and organizations asking him to follow the rules so that he will internalize the rules in some approximation of self-control. Clearly my frustration isn’t just with him it’s that I am trying to address a situation with what is in fact a completely wrong strategy.

With messages like these in our life is it any wonder that we have crazy ideas about obedience?

So does this mean that I give up on getting him out of the house on time or in bed on time? No, I still believe he ought to be in pre-school when they start (they do these really cute morning exercises and have breakfast both of which are great social opportunities, which is why he is enrolled in pre-school) and a regular bed time is important for little growing kids. It does mean that I have some thinking and experimenting to do to see what helps him decide the he wants to get involved in these two projects. Teaching him to tell time on a clock seems to be a first step, at least he won’t think that being timely is purely arbitrary.

I have a upcoming leadership workshops in October and November and I feel like this is a topic I am going to get paid to let other people discuss. I am fairly curious to hear what comes out of the Chinese system when pressed on this point. The education system here is based around following rules and fitting into a testing system. One could argue that Confucianism (which influences the Chinese education and civil service systems) is at its heart a doctrine of obedience and rules, promoting strict testing and clear definitions of rank and responsibility. In other words a healthy chunk of Chinese culture relies on the idea that self-control and proper behavior follows clear rules.

I have probably mentioned before that we see this turn up in personality testing in China. Frequently in leadership training we administer the MBTI to help people better understand themselves. Now the MBTI has it’s issues with reliability in China due to being a direct translation of the English version (in other words no cultural adaptation) but regardless we see that of the 4 sets of pair choices four of them E,S,T,J all get over 75% of the respondents answers. That doesn’t mean everyone comes out as an ESTJ but we see a lot of them or type closely matching with two or three similar functions. Why? Because all of the traits we associate with these mental functions are culturally valued and taught in traditional venues of home and school. Largely these behaviors are taught as models that should be obeyed and what we are seeing is that on a surface level they are being absorbed.

At the same time the rules-lead-to-internalization model is being used in people management by leaders from around the world in China, I heard a Belgian general manager tell a group of Chinese supervisors the other day, “don’t be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution.” In other words do as we say to be a part of the group that is behaving properly, other wise you will be viewed as a problem employee. Isn’t there something fundamentally disturbing to think that we as adults treat other adults the way that I treat a three year old?

Among young leaders and managers I find a rising tide of young people who are emotionally distressed because of all the things they feel they “need to do.” In other words when we ask people to internalize something that doesn’t work for them we start to hurt them often in ways that are beneath the surface. Is it a risk we want to take when we go with the easy way to get people to act like we believe they should?

So here is my last thought here: it’s time to rethink old strategies on creating self-control, they clearly aren’t working like we hope they will.

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