Too much self-discipline at work makes you appear “robotic” to your peers

7 Jul 2022

illustration concept of business man in suit sitting cross-legged with clock and checklist

An international study involving the UQ Business School has found evidence suggesting that business leaders who display extraordinary self-discipline at work may be dehumanised and perceived as “robot-like”. 

Dr Justin Brienza, who is part of a research team with academics from the University of Waterloo in Canada and Purdue University in the United States, said that individuals with high self-discipline, or self-control, were seen as robotic or less-than-human by their co-workers.

“Leaders who display high self-control, such as planning every minute of their day or coming into work before and leaving after everybody else, may impress upon workers the ideal of hard work,” he said.

“However, they may also ultimately miss out on the benefits of appearing human, such as showing that they care or can empathise and be compassionate with employees. 

"This can reduce trust in the leader. It also can create pressure for a high-regulation environment and workaholic culture that other employees may try to follow, which can contribute to staff burnout.”

illustration of person sleeping tied to clock with tall columns of paperwork in background

The research, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science reported six studies testing the effects of perceptions of self-control in everyday social life, using data from over 2000 participants.

The results have potential implications for work, since a large part of organisational life and leadership requires high self-control and many organisations even recruit on variables relating to self-control such as conscientiousness.  

These findings suggest that while people with high self-control may be more hireable and sought after by managers for hard tasks, they may also be dehumanised and socially rejected in the workplace.

“Leaders in this situation may want to take steps to re-humanise themselves by showing caring and communal behaviours with their staff,” Dr Brienza said.

“While we don’t want to lose self-control in the workplace because it contributes to efficiency and good performance, companies can take measures to re-humanise the workplace.

“For example, high self-control employees should be rewarded for their effort, but instead of rewarding simply for good performance like reaching their KPIs, the rewards could also be framed to highlight the human and pro-social elements of their efforts.

“This might include how they helped make things easier for their peers or solved problems in a way that benefits other people.

illustration of people building a bridge over a gap between each other

“Another way managers could re-humanise a high self-control environment might be to set up communal break sessions where employees can relax and get to know each other.

“Our follow-up studies are investigating these questions and looking at how organisational contexts and behaviours can minimise the link between high self-control and social dehumanisation at work.”

Contact: Dr Justin Brienza, or +61 7 3346 8141