It’s Super Not Stressful Being At The Top

It’s common knowledge that leaders are very lonely and under super amounts of stress.  Well, at least that’s what we’ve been made to believe from 1950’s research!  There is new evidence out that has found it’s not all that bad being in a leader position.  From Scientific American:

When the executive or the general complains that they are “stressed,” we have to pay careful attention to what exactly they mean. They may have more emails in their inbox than they can get to. They may work long hours. But in most cases they can say no to requests and they can decide when and how to deal with challenges. They have much more control over how their lives are arranged than does the secretary who schedules their appointments or the janitor who cleans their office.

People so crave control over their lives that when control is scarce they will manufacture it. In studies by psychologist Aaron Kay and colleagues, people made to feel that they lacked control believed more fervently in a controlling God. They believed also in a controlling government, conspiracy theories, and superstitions. Someone has to be in control. Lacking control is associated with higher blood pressure, lowered immune function, and a host of stress-related diseases. Control is the essence of power, the linchpin binding status to stress.

So why did the executive monkeys drop dead of ulcers if control protects against stress? It turned out that the study had a fatal flaw. The monkeys were not assigned to be in the executive or helpless groups at random, which is the cornerstone of an experiment. The monkeys who learned how to use the lever to prevent shocks the fastest were “promoted” to executives. Those fast learners may have learned fast because they were especially upset by the shocks. If so, then it was not control that doomed them but their heightened stress response to being shocked. There is a lesson here, and not only in the scientific method. If you are trying furiously to control a situation because you are terrified of what would happen if you don’t, you are not really in control at all.

Turns out leaders have stress, but they also have power to control their environment more than non-leaders.  So, while we want to believe having ultimate decision making power is also powerful and stressful, it probably isn’t as much as those who don’t have any of that power surrounding you. 

Control, or better, one’s ability to control what happens to them is actually a higher stressor than just having a ton things to do, or even the feeling of being under a lot of ‘pressure’. Everyone has pressure, but those who have pressure and no ability to influence that pressure face a level of stress that can actually physically cause them harm to their health.

Want less stress in your life?  Reach a level in your career where you have more control of what actually happens!

2 thoughts on “It’s Super Not Stressful Being At The Top

  1. Even at a lower level, I think it’s possible to use this adage in one’s every day life. It’s not necessarily how much control one has, but rather how much one perceives they have control (which in some cases is the same). I.e., if you feel stressed out, get organized! With better visibility into your list of tasks or people to get in touch with, it’s easier to feel “in control,” and in all likelihood, you will actually be.

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