Researchers from Northwestern University studied around 300 rural African-American teenagers. Those from low-income families who exhibited high levels of self-control, and were thus more likely to achieve their goals, had immune cells that were biologically much oder than their actual age.
Rapid ageing of these cells has been linked to premature death and its thought to be due to long-term high levels of stress hormone.
“To achieve upward mobility these youths must overcome multiple obstacles and often do so with limited support from their schools, peers, and families. Even if they succeed, these youths may go on to experience alienation in university and work-place settings and discrimination if they are African-American”
“Collectively these experiences seem likely to cause persistent activation of stress response systems”
Professor Greg Miller went on to say “For low-income youths, self-control may act as a double-edged sword facilitating academic success and psychological adjustment while at the same time undermining physical health”
In the research those with high self-control were able to focus better on long-term rather than short-term goals. were less depressed, used substances less frequently, and were less aggressive – regardless of their gender, family income or education
In addition those from low-income families were more likely to have the ageing immune cells.
Previous studies have shown that poorer children with better self-control were also at greater risk of heart disease because of their obesity, high blood pressure and levels of stress hormones in their blood.
The researchers add “These patterns suggest that for low-income youth resilience is a skin deep phenomenon wherein outward indicators of success can mask emerging problems with health”
They also think that providers of “character-building programmes” should include health education to help the youth mitigate health problems that stop them achieving their full potential. Low-income youths who do well in school and stay out of trouble are thought to have overcome disadvantage but it’s only half the full story it seems.
It would be interesting to know if these findings translate into other cultures and countries or whether they are only applicable to African-Americans from poor backgrounds.
Aaron Kay at Fuqua Management School of Business at Duke University, Carolina, thinks leaders should worry less about empowerment and equality.
He says “In organisations there is a move to become flat but that is not always the best thingy you want to keep employees working hard”.
“People may say that they want to work in an egalitarian workplace but sometimes they actually function better in a hierarchy” regardless of where they sit in the organisation.
It’s not just that a hierarchy offers more chance of promotion – although some staff will appreciate seeing a ladder to climb – but that hierarchies offer staff a sense of order and structure which they like.
When times are turbulent and external circumstances reduce their sense of control preference for hierarchies increases. Kay says “People seek out guidance and leaders” And a hierarchy helps them feel that they are in a safe, stable environment … where they can predict the outcome of their behaviours.
His research also suggests that a strong hierarchy helps people feel that they are being more effective in tackling long-term goals. “If you lead an organisation where you need employees to work on long-term projects, committed to long-term goals, it’s tempting to think that if you give them autonomy they will be more interested and it will drive the right behaviour”.
But as he points out long-term goals are hard to achieve and people need to forgo immediate reward to focus on something way off in the future. They have to trust the system. Having a clear structure and a hierarchy reassures employees that things won’t change before they complete the task.
Hierarchy might also be better for complex tasks where each person needs to complete their part exactly as it is specified. This doesn’t necessarily mean managers should adopt a directive or autocratic approach. Employees obviously like to know where they stand but managers shouldn’t lord it over them and be open to new ideas.
Other experts disagree. One said ‘it’s naive to think that structures always work the way they were intended“. In some organisations employees feel that although there is a structure and the rules are fair, they are not always applied fairly.
It seems to depend on whether or not you can trust the leaders and managers to be fair and whether or not the rules change as you are working.
See also my earlier post on hierarchical management.