Single-molecule magnets are compounds that exhibit magnetic bistability caused by an energy barrier for the reversal of magnetization (relaxation). Lanthanide compounds are proving promising as single-molecule magnets: recent studies show that terbium phthalocyanine complexes possess large energy barriers, and dysprosium and terbium complexes bridged by an N 2 3- radical ligand exhibit magnetic hysteresis up to 13 K. Magnetic relaxation is typically controlled by single-ion factors rather than magnetic exchange (whether one or more 4f ions are present) and proceeds through thermal relaxation of the lowest excited states. Here we report polylanthanide alkoxide cage complexes, and their doped diamagnetic yttrium analogues, in which competing relaxation pathways are observed and relaxation through the first excited state can be quenched. This leads to energy barriers for relaxation of magnetization that exceed 800 K. We investigated the factors at the lanthanide sites that govern this behaviour. © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.