It’s tough to be the boss. A recent Wall Street Journal article described the plight of one CEO who had to drag himself out of bed each morning and muster his game face. It would be a long day of telling other people what to do. It got so bad, we are told, that he had no choice but to take a year off work to sail across the Atlantic Ocean with his family.
Forbes agrees: “many CEOs have personal assistants who run their schedules for them, and they go from one meeting straight to another with barely a moment to go to the bathroom.” The indignity! And even worse than the bladder strain is having to fire people: “You may think a CEO can be detached when deciding who to lay off, but generally that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Having to make tough decisions about the people all around you can hit very hard.” Take heart, those of you who have lost your job in these turbulent economic times. At least you didn’t have to fire somebody.
This type of silliness usually cites research from the 1950’s on “executive stress syndrome.” The research was not on executives, but rhesus monkeys. In a famous experiment, neuroscientist Joseph Brady subjected one group of monkeys to regular electric shocks every 20 seconds for six hour shifts. Another group of “executive monkeys” had the same schedule, except that they could prevent the shocks by pressing a lever in each 20 second period. The “executive monkeys” quickly learned to prevent the shocks by pressing the levers. This situation sounds awful for both monkeys, but decidedly worse for the monkeys with no escape. And yet, it was the “executive monkeys” with greater responsibility and control who started dropping dead from stomach ulcers. These results seemed to suggest that being responsible for making important decisions was so stressful that it posed a serious health risk. Executive stress syndrome was born.
There are of course two problems with an executive monkey: the executive and the monkey. For Rhesus monkeys are not people, and controlling electric shocks is not making business decisions. We can do better.
In fact there are hundreds of studies on the relationship between stress, health, and power. And they virtually all show the opposite of the executive monkeys. Biologist Robert Sapolsky has studied baboon troops in Africa. He finds that the lower the baboon’s rank in the pecking order, the more likely it is to have high levels of stress hormones and stress-related illnesses. But a high-ranking alpha male, who can mate with any female he chooses and take out his aggression on any lower ranking male, has much lower stress. If executive apes exist, these are the ones.
Evolutionary psychologists often talk about the brain as a Swiss Army knife, with a particular gadget “designed” by evolution to solve each evolutionary problem. But the stress response is no Swiss Army knife -- it’s a sledge hammer. The stress response is an all-purpose Code Red that reacts in a similar way to different kinds of threats. The hyena charging from behind the grass elicits the same kinds of bodily responses as the boardroom full of bosses evaluating your PowerPoint presentation. The brain triggers a release of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, causing the heart rate to spike. Glucose floods the system to release energy. All that energy is diverted to muscles in the arms and legs as the body shuts down non-essential activities like growth and digestion. That’s great for running or fighting, but no help for remembering your opening joke.