Monster Stress: To battle or befriend

Recently I had a ringside seat at a series of epic battles. It’s not an unusual spot for me, as our work involves challenging people to confront the monsters that are holding them back in order to become better leaders. But something about the way these particular warriors connected under pressure, struck me as vitally important if we are to build less stressful and less siloed workplaces.

The battles took place at a female leadership development program in Asia, and I marvelled at the participants’ bravery as they fought with not one, but two significant monsters.

The first monster they were fighting is very old friend of mine, I can trace every scar it ever gave me. It’s the hard work that all women have to do to be heard, to be taken seriously or to have an equal platform to operate from – all while trying not to seem domineering or aggressive.

The second monster isn’t one I’ve ever had to fight. It’s my own western culture: where leaders aren’t necessarily expected (or trusted) to have all the answers, and where challenging and debating with them are the norm. That’s less common in Asia, where doing so might cause a leader to lose face. But these participants were working for a western-headquartered company, and such behaviours are valued, especially if you want to get to the top.

The course was designed to create a deeply stressful environment for these women, simulating the real-life strategic challenges that the firm was dealing with and demanding some of those behaviours in front of a forum that included their most senior executives. And yet, when they met for the second session, they greeted each other like old friends: despite working for several months separated by distance and by function, and despite the challenges of their first encounter.

As it turns out, that connectedness in the face of extreme stress has a basis in science. You have probably heard of the term ‘fight or flight’ which was first identified by Walter Cannon in 1932, after observing the effect of  the neuroendocrine response that releases a cascade of hormones (norepinephine and epinephrine) into the bloodstream. Whether the organism then ‘fights’ or ‘flees’ depends on the nature of the stressor. Simply put: if it looks like I can beat it I’ll fight it, otherwise I’m outta here. Interestingly however, Dr Shelley Taylor and her team at UCLA noticed that the studies that led to these conclusions were done mostly on male rats, and that the subsequent human studies which confirmed the findings, (and catapulted them into every school biology curriculum) were also mostly conducted on men.

Taylor et al’s study published in 2000 found some staggering differences in the female stress response. They noted that although women also receive a similar cascade of hormones, the effects are moderated by the female hormones oxytocin and estrogen. Behaviorally, womens’ responses are more marked by a pattern of ‘tend-and-befriend’. Tending involves nurturing activities designed to increase safety and reduce distress, and befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks (particularly with other females) designed to aid that process.

Not one of us will argue that the burden of stress in most workplaces is at a critical point, and I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with C-suite executives who wish to break down silos: be they functional, geographic or cultural. So if you are reading this and have the ability to invest in your future female leaders, may I humbly suggest that you do so, so that they have an opportunity to do what comes naturally to them: create support networks that cross barriers and reduce distress for everyone in their care.

Here are my recommendations:

·     Invest in face to face.This is especially important if there aren’t that many female peers to ‘tend and befried’ each other in one location, and if you want the resulting networks to span silos

·     Challenge them to battle their monsters right there.This does two things: it creates the level of stress that will spark network creation, and it also builds capacity so that the monster becomes one they might one day vanquish, rather than flee from.

·     Watch what happens.And by ‘watch’, I mean measure. As many ways as you can: stress levels, engagement, promotions, retention and all the myriad worthy HR metrics, because proof counts.

The changes we need to see in the world will take all of us to achieve. Men and women, East and West, battling and networking, challenging and nurturing each other to make better workplaces and better lives. Let’s ensure we liberate the best characteristics of every gender and every culture to do so.

It remains to be seen whether the wonderful group I witnessed can harness their collective power to face down their monsters and transform their organisation, but I’m betting on it.

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