Ideas for Leaders #211

Leaders Less Stressed than Followers Due to a Sense of Control

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Key Concept

Today’s leaders face increasing demands and must be inundated with stress, right? Not so according to this research, which suggests that the heightened sense of control that accompanies leadership may actually help to reduce stress levels. In fact, non-leaders are probably more stressed than their leaders are. 

Idea Summary

In a classic Harvard Business Review article published in 1981, Harry Levinson said “managing others… creates unending stress… Today’s managers face increasing time pressures with little respite.” Levinson’s view is not unique; in fact, leadership is still widely viewed as highly stressful. A 2013 Business Insider article describes being a CEO as an “incredibly lonely experience.” This Idea challenges these views.

Researchers from Harvard University, the University of California and Stanford University propose that leaders may in fact be less stressed than non-leaders. In two studies, they looked at different types of leaders from the public sector enrolled in an executive education program.

In the first study involving 216 participants, they examined the leadership-stress relationship by testing whether leaders and non-leaders differed in their levels of salivary cortisol and reports of anxiety — both being physiological indicators of stress. They found that leaders had significantly lower cortisol than non-leaders. Interestingly, the sample used for this first study also showed that leaders exercised more and smoked less than non-leaders, but drank more coffee and slept less.

In the second study, 75 leaders participated, and the researchers examined the link between a psychological sense of control and the same indicators of stress (cortisol and anxiety); once again higher levels of leadership were associated with lower cortisol and anxiety, suggesting that a ‘sense of control’ may be a mediating factor between leadership and stress. In other words, occupying a position in which you possess substantial authority over a large number of subordinates can act like a buffer against stress. 

Business Application

Though overall these findings suggest that ‘life at the top’ is better for your health than life as a subordinate, perhaps leaders should pay closer attention to those subordinates that they delegate to, as it is they who end up with their share of stress. To this end, ensuring subordinates are educated in stress management may help. Additionally, as a psychological sense of control was shown to significantly shape stress, leaders should develop a corporate culture where employees feel they have greater control. In an article about this research published by ABC News one of the researchers, James Grosse, suggests that "if you enhance the sense of control, that could be a really healthy thing for people."

But, the researchers also note that low stress levels may both cause and result from leadership; that is, individuals with low stress levels may be particularly well-suited for leadership and as a result, select into leadership positions.

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