In Robert Sapolsky’s book “Why Zebras don’t get ulcers” he describes both physical stressors and psychological stressors.
The zebra experiences a physiological stress response to a physical stressor. A lion darts out from the tall grass and the zebra’s heart rate and blood pressure spike in order to mobilize as much energy as possible to avoid becoming lunch. After the zebra has escaped the stress response passes.
The leader experiences the same physiological stress response to a psychological stressor. Unlike the Zebra the leader is not facing an immediate threat to survival, but by merely thinking about a threat he/she activates the stress response. A leader who consistently worries about a threat activates the physiological stress response. Over time this can produce disease and illness.
What can a leader do about this?
In Stan Profitt’s writing “The Nature of Anxiety, Stress and Tension” he describes three threat categories:
Existential Threats: Perceived threat to one’s survival.
Social Threats: Perceived threat to social stability, acceptance in important relationships or groups, approval and social harmony.
Threats to Conceptual Self: Threats to belief structures, values, principles and conceptual extensions of self, such as attachments to outside entities or others that provide a “borrowed” sense of self.
A key factor in the degree of influence the threat will have on the stress response is the “perception” of the threat. Questions a leader can ask self to challenge perceptions:
- Does this have the potential to actually kill me?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- What evidence do I have to support my beliefs?
- How likely is it that I will be ostracized for expressing a difference of opinion?
- What can I do about this?
- What can’t I do about this?
- Is that disapproving glance that I caught directed towards me as a person or towards an idea that I expressed?
Perceptions can operate at a subconscious level. A leader can be so programmed to detect signs of disapproval that the corresponding threat perception and stress response go unnoticed. But through a conscious effort to be more discerning, a leader can change his/her automatic perception of that disapproving glance and its impact on functioning.