Burdens of Power

By Sarina Rodrigues | December 1, 2007 | 0 comments

The Psychology of Power: Methods

Apollo was the king of the world—or at least king of his corner of the grasslands in Kenya.

When Stanford researcher Robert Sapolsky observed Apollo and his baboon troop in 1982, Apollo was reaping the benefits of his lofty position at the top of the troop, such as access to the best food. But when his baboon rivals Jo-Jo and Bluto started challenging Apollo’s authority, Sapolsky found that Apollo exhibited all the physical and psychological strains usually exhibited by lower-ranking baboons, including ulcers, heart disease, and anxiety.

While primate chiefs like Apollo usually enjoy less stress and better health than their subordinates, studies have shown that leaders are also vulnerable to serious physical and mental health problems when they must fight to maintain their leadership.

This can even be true in human organizations, where powerful individuals can experience massive amounts of pressure and social isolation, especially in ultra-competitive environments like corporate boardrooms. And, research suggests, this can affect one’s health in ways similar to sitting at the bottom of the social ladder. One study by Development Dimensions International, a business training company based in Pennsylvania, found that receiving a promotion can be more stressful than divorce, moving, or raising teenagers. 

Does this mean that humans and baboons alike are doomed to live through endless cycles of misery and conflict? Not necessarily, according to Sapolsky. He says leaders can avoid stress and help cultivate healthy group dynamics by actively involving subordinates in decisions, clearly defining work roles, providing resources for counseling or conflict mediation, encouraging strong social support, and offering outlets for emotional release, such as exercise or meditation.

Organizations would also benefit from helping their leaders (and, indeed, all their employees) manage stress. “Developing effective stress management programs can be complicated and time consuming,” says Suzanne Crampton, a professor at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “However, providing such programs should be viewed as an investment rather than as an expense, because they ultimately can make employees healthier and happier and the organization more successful.”

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About The Author

Sarina M. Rodrigues, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Greater
Good Science Center.

  

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