Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Physiological benefits of leadership - Importance of a sense of control

An edited paste-up from Sapolsky's brief review pointing to work of Sherman et al. showing that leaders feeling a sense of control have lower stress levels.
Studies on primates have shown complex relationships between social dominance, physiology, and health among primates...basal cortisol levels in nonhuman primates do not so much reflect social rank as the meaning of social rank in a particular species and social group. Similar studies in humans have been challenging, because humans belong to multiple hierarchies (for example, one can have both a low position in a corporation and also be a respected church leader), and typically the one in which they rank highest is valued most. Sherman et al. have studied a population of governmental and military leaders (with equal numbers of men and women) who had been sent to an executive training program. Subjects came from a range of midlevel ranks (e.g., officers up to the rank of colonel in the army); had been in leadership positions for an average of more than 3 y; and were presumably well-regarded, given their selection by their organization for this honor. As the key findings, compared with age, sex, and ethnicity-matched nonleader controls, and after controlling for lifestyle health factors (e.g., diet, level of exercise), leaders had substantially lower resting cortisol levels and lower levels of self-reported anxiety. Thus, within this example of hierarchical stratification, high rank carries physiological and psychological advantages.
Here is the Sherman et al. abstract:
As leaders ascend to more powerful positions in their groups, they face ever-increasing demands. As a result, there is a common perception that leaders have higher stress levels than nonleaders. However, if leaders also experience a heightened sense of control—a psychological factor known to have powerful stress-buffering effects—leadership should be associated with reduced stress levels. Using unique samples of real leaders, including military officers and government officials, we found that, compared with nonleaders, leaders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower reports of anxiety (study 1). In study 2, leaders holding more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions, a relationship explained significantly by their greater sense of control. Altogether, these findings reveal a clear relationship between leadership and stress, with leadership level being inversely related to stress.
Further notes from Sapolsky's review:
...although both low-cortisol and low-anxiety levels correlated with leadership, neither was correlated with the other. This supports a literature that links anxiety more closely to elevated activity of the other main branch of the stress response (i.e., the sympathetic nervous system and epinephrine secretion) than to elevated cortisol secretion...The study reported additional, subtle findings. One concerned a critical mediating psychological variable in the leaders. An extensive literature shows that for the same external stressor, subjects feel less subjectively stressed, activate less of a stress response, and are less at risk for a stress-related disease if they feel a sense of control.
Both having a greater total number of subordinates and greater levels of authority were associated with a greater sense of personal control, as well as with lower levels of cortisol and anxiety; this certainly makes intuitive sense. However, having a greater number of subordinates to manage directly was not associated with those salutary psychological and physiological end points. This lends support to the stereotypical bellyaching of the office manager who says, “It’s not so much that I’m the boss of X number of people; it’s more like I have X number of bosses.”


  1. Anonymous1:36 AM

    I wonder which way the causation goes here. Are less stressed people more likely to become bosses or does having more power reduce your stress level? This could be studied by doing similar analysis for individuals before and after a promotion.