Harvard, Stanford Researchers Find Leaders Less Stressed Due to Sense of Control

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A group of researchers from Stanford University and Harvard University found that higher-level leaders had less stress than non-leaders or lower-level leaders, upending a common perception that decision-makers experience more anxiety.

The paper, published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" on Monday by academics in the fields of psychology, business and public policy, measured stress by the stress hormone cortisol, and a series of interviews.

A group of 231 participants, 136 of whom were male, agreed to hormone testing for the first study, which tested the hormone levels among leaders and non-leaders.

The sample included middle- to high-level government officials and military officers in the Harvard Business School's executive education program.

The study also recruited community members from the greater Boston metropolitan area with similar characteristics as the executive sample by age, sex and ethnicity.

The leaders were categorized based on their "yes" and "no" responses to the question, "Are you responsible for managing others?"

James Gross, a Stanford psychologist and one of the authors, said the study aimed to answer the question, "As you become a leader or climb up leadership ranks, is it true things get more intensely stressful for you?"

He said one common perception of leaders is that they are paid more money to endure high stress levels and perhaps become ill more frequently, or even die sooner.

Gross he and his six colleagues hypothesized that the common perception is not true because psychology literature has found that having so-called control in one's life, often associated with the powerful, is correlated with less anxiety.

They found that the leaders were less stressed in terms of cortisol level and how stressed they reported being.

"That was really interesting to us, which showed that common sense may be wrong," he said. "That's not to say that leaders can't get stressed. But looking at general levels, leaders appear to be less stressed."

The second study involved interviewing 88 members of Harvard's executive education program to determine their leadership responsibilities, such as how many subordinates they have, whether they are expected to motivate, promote or demote their subordinates, and their level of overall authority.

They then measured their sense of social control by asking participants if they agree to a series of questions on a scale of one to five. For example, one statement was: "I can get people to listen to what I say."

Consistent with the first study, the researchers found that the more leadership responsibility a person had, the less coritsol they had and the less stressed they said they were.

Gross emphasized that the study measured "perceived" control, or their personal sense of power, and that the study found a correlation and not necessarily a causal relationship between leadership and stress.

He said it is "totally possible" that the people who are less stressed are those who rise up to leadership, rather than the idea that being a leader reduces your stress.

He said more studies may be necessary to determine if there is a causal relationship. If it is causal, it could be interesting to analyze ways to engineer social and psychological changes in leaders or people with anxiety.

"If you enhance the sense of control, that could be a really healthy thing for people," Gross said.

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