Being the boss isn’t as stressful as you might think

Published 15 October 2012 03:55, Updated 21 November 2012 06:56

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Being the boss isn’t as stressful as you might think

While leaders might be stressed, this is offset by high status, which literally activates the reward centres in the brain. Photo: Louise Kennerley

The higher people go as a leader, the less stress they experience, according to a study by James Gross of Stanford University and six other researchers.

Research in neuroscience supports Gross, finding that leaders are motivated by something called the SCARF model. SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – the five social experiences that create strong threats or rewards in the brain.

From the SCARF perspective, while top leaders may have plenty of stress, they also have lots of rewards (literally activations of the reward centre in the brain) that offset this stress.

For instance, the chief executive obviously has high status. Cameron Anderson from the University of California showed that respect from others (which comes from having high status) mattered more than money for happiness. He defined the term “local status” (which is how you rank compared to people around you) and found that it was more important for happiness than socioeconomic status.

In terms of other SCARF domains, senior leaders have higher certainty than most people, with long-term contracts and big pay packages giving them the confidence and wherewithal to weather economic storms. They also have a lot more autonomy (what the study calls a sense of control) and a greater sense of fairness (they’re not refusing that big pay package), triggering more reward responses and making them less aware of the stress felt by their underlings.

So while senior leaders might have plenty of stress, they experience rewards from at least four of the five domains that could be offsetting this stress. Without even considering the big pay packets, we can see that senior leaders in theory may be a whole lot happier than is widely believed.

However, like many studies, Gross’ finding doesn’t tell the whole story. The average large company might have one CEO, an executive team of 20, and then 1000 other people in “leadership” roles, out of a staff of, say, 100,000. So, we’ve learned that 21 people out of 100,000 are less stressed than we thought. What about the rest of the leaders in that firm?

Let’s look at followership from the SCARF perspective. Speaking to one’s boss is likely to put employees into a threat (stress) state, because the employee has less status, less certainty, and less autonomy. When someone is feeling under threat, small threats can become much larger. Imagine how people feel about their boss when the employee experiences large threats, such as a sudden drop in income and assets, and an increase in uncertainty because of global economic conditions.

In short, while top bosses are less stressed than we thought, the life of the average manager, the people who make up much of the middle class, is getting more stressful than ever. As one example, more people than ever are staying connected while on holiday, yet the trend is the other direction for senior executives.

There is another side to top leaders being generally “happy,” which deserves teasing out. First, experiencing positivity makes you more likely to perceive other people’s situations as positive, even when they are not. Second, a number of studies show that high social status tends to make people less aware of social cues. Third, high cognitive load, which senior leaders indeed experience, makes it harder to fully grasp how others experience the world. Finally, high cognitive load also makes it harder to displace the well documented “false consensus effect,” which is the tendency to automatically assume other people feel the way that you do.

So, senior leaders might be happier than we thought, though this mental state combined with their position could be the source of how deeply unaware they can be of the stress that others are experiencing.

Perhaps senior leaders don’t need to learn to manage stress better after all. They need to learn to recognise and help other people deal with theirs.

David Rock is co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, a consultant and author of Your Brain at Work.

Harvard Business Review

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