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Impulsive Work/Life Decisions and Their Effect on a Leader’s Productivity

By Dr. Geri Markel On 

What’s the Difference Between Quick, Sound Decisions the Impulsive, “Quick-Fix” Type?

Whether at Work or in Life, strong leaders tend to seize the moment and make quick decisions. But there is a danger that a leader may be in such a rush to move ahead, that s/he fails to employ important data and discussion.  Without forethought, a leader may be caught being too impulsive and in a precarious financial or safety situation.

Impulsiveness has been defined by as “behavior without adequate thought; the tendency to act with less forethought than do most individuals of equal ability and knowledge.”  The impulsive leader may not think about the negative consequences that could follow rash decisions or actions.

Here are some examples:

  • Blurting out comments: “I know I’m interrupting, but I don’t want to lose this thought.”
  • Hasty decision-making: “Here’s some new research. Let’s jump on it and stop some other project.”
  • Overspending: “I love that new phone. It’s got to be mine right now. I’ll worry about paying for it later.”

These adults show the rash, non-thinking aspects of impulsiveness. At work, they may court communication and financial problems.  In addition to impulsive decision-making, they may demonstrate poor time management and difficulty following directions. Away from work, they may speed or text while driving and have difficulty engaging quietly in leisure activities.

Impulsiveness (a.k.a. Impulsivity) is Linked to Needing Immediate Gratification

When a leader is impulsive, s/he acts in accordance with short-term or immediate rewards and lack awareness (or ignore it) of negative, long-term consequences. Thus, during team meetings, interrupting others and blurting out ideas, undermines the desire for long-term career success.

Impulsivity is dysfunction when it’s a frequent occurrence, leading to continual suffering from more negative consequences.  Superiors at work and/or family and friends can be affected badly and in comparison, to most people of the same age and skill, this behavior can have a bad effect on career and relationships.

Three Major Components of Impulsivity

Several researchers have discussed impulsivity in terms of three components. These include:

  • Motor: engaging in actions without forethought. For example, acting on the spur of the moment.
  • Thinking: making quick decisions and being inattentive to the task at hand.
  • Absence of planning: being spontaneous or non-planning. For example, not thinking about the future. You are totally in the moment and not thinking about anything but the here and now.

One may ask, “Doesn’t everyone act impulsively sometime?”

The answer is “Yes”!  Most people act impulsively sometimes, but it is not considered their lifestyle or a personality trait. Being spontaneous happens occasionally and when it occurs it results in either a positive consequence or, if a negative consequence, usually a small one.

For example, you’re leaving work, someone says, there’s a great movie in town, and you decide to go on the spur of the moment. In such instances, you aren’t in danger of ignoring serious safety, health, legal, or social guidelines when you make a hasty decision.  Though you may neglect dinner or getting to sleep on time, it’s a relatively small negative consequence.

The Impulsivity Continuum

The frequency and severity of impulsivity may go from minimal to disastrous or dangerous.  On the low end of the impulsivity continuum, some examples include:

  • You occasional say something unkind that you regret,
  • You splurge for a special event,
  • You jump to a conclusion too quickly.

These actions may happen only once in while and do not result in negative, long-term consequences.  Compare the above to examples that are on the dysfunctional end of the continuum:

  • You frequently engage in risky behaviors such as overspending on a budget,
  • You rush to engage in an activity and forget to do something important such as locking offices.
  • You decide, spare of the moment, to jump on some new idea for your team, which completely changes their focus, their tasks, thus causing considerable costs to your boss or company.

Perhaps you know that you have impulsive tendencies, but you fluff off the idea of overuse or abuse and say, “It doesn’t matter.” or “What difference does it make?”  It makes a big difference over time!  Use the questionnaire (below) to get a handle on where you stand?

What is My Impulsivity Pattern?

Take a self-check, identify conditions under which you are most prone to act impulsively (e.g., fatigued, time pressured, with certain people), and identify when and how to curb your impulsivity.

Impulsivity Checklist

___ 1. I blurt out comments or answers.

___ 2. I have difficulty taking turns or standing in line.

___ 3. I have problems sitting and engaging in quiet tasks.

___ 4. People say I interrupt conversations or engage in nonstop talking

___ 5. I weave in and out of traffic, hastily pulling out without checking. Sometimes I have road rage.

___ 6. Making rash, often destructive decisions.

___ 7. Often, I act before I think of the consequences.

___ 8. I can’t put on the brakes once I’m into teasing someone.

___ 9. Too frequently, I overspend when I see something I love.

__ 10. I know I should, but I don’t wear a helmet when biking, skiing or playing sports.

How many of these symptoms of impulsivity do you see in yourself? Ask, “What are the consequences of such behaviors—and how does it affect my productivity?” If the negative consequences outnumber the positive consequences, decide if you can benefit from greater impulsivity control. Ask yourself:

  • Are you in jeopardy of losing out on a promotion because of inappropriate interruptions, insensitive statements, or inaccuracies?
  • Or perhaps your spouse and family mistrust your agreements because they change quickly and frequently?
  • Perhaps you’ve even lost a relationship or two because your impulsivity was perceived as you not caring?

The Stop, Look, and Listen Strategy to Manage Inappropriate Impulsivity

The Stop, Look, and Listen technique involves several modalities and steps. Use this handy technique when you feel tired, ill, or stressed—also when you’re preoccupied about a work/life circumstance. You are more vulnerable to impulsiveness under these conditions.

Reducing Impulsivity: Stop, Look, and Listen Routine

  • Stop: Take a timeout for half a minute or even a few full minutes. Allow your mind and body to relax and refocus on the task.
  • Look: Visualize the situation. Be vigilant about the conditions under which you are to perform or complete a task. What materials do you need? What are the possible dangers or pitfalls? Did I ever do this before and get in trouble?
  • Listen: Engage in constructive self-talk, providing instructions about what to do or not do. You’ll find that when you give yourself directions, you focus more sharply and listen more carefully. In addition, you reduce the chances of distraction from outside noises or intrusive thoughts.

If you are a very impulsive person, you may need to practice this with a friend or therapist.  Knowing what to do is very different from doing it in the moment.

Impulsivity in the workplace can be a serious problem since it hampers productivity. Use the above strategy to improve your skill at “putting on the brakes,” and you’ll probably find work and life hold greater, longer-term rewards – ones you truly want more than the “quick-fix,” as a result.


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