The Better Baboon

I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately. Which is good. That’s a positive shift from my more typical pattern, which tends to involve experiencing a lot of stress without giving much analytical thought to it at all. I don’t recommend this, in part because it’s exactly what most of us are doing most of the time, and we can see how well that’s been working out for all of us. Being stressed out about stress itself at least has a nifty metacognitive ring to it.

To a certain degree this is a continuation of the thread I was taking up in my last post, looking at the brain and its functions as they apply to the ways in which we conduct ourselves. The stress thing is another fascinating angle. The basic idea, as I’m coming to understand it (with all necessary apologies for gross oversimplification and undoubtedly sloppy, layman’s interpretation) is that the action of stress on our brains and bodies is a critical evolutionary feature. It’s been strongly selected for over millions of years, and the basic mechanics of the stress response in a human brain aren’t so different from those you’ll find in the brain of any mammal. And there are good reasons for this: the changes brought on in the brain and body by acute stress are all very useful things if you’re suddenly being attacked by a lion. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, the classic “fight or flight” response is activated, energy levels surge. You scamper away, the lion is frustrated, you pass on your genetic information to the next generation, and so on. So far, so good.

The tricky bit for humans is that in very recent times (at least in evolutionary terms) our brains have evolved a bag of tricks foreign to your average wildebeest. Specifically, while we and the wildebeest tend to respond in similar ways to the lion, nothing that we know about wildebeest psychology suggests that they spend a lot of time ruminating about lions when they’re not actually dealing with one. I’m no zoologist here, but my admittedly superficial survey of the literature doesn’t seem to suggest that wildebeests posses particularly rich imaginative lives at all. We do, and that’s a problem.

The problem, in other words, is we have the ability to imagine stressful situations whether or not we’re actually in them. We can play our current reality forward in various ways that haven’t actually happened and may never, but would really, really suck if they did. We can think about this, and we can get stressed out by it. And we do this all the time.

Now somewhere in here there’s probably a totally uninteresting discussion to be had around what exactly constitutes “real” stress. I can imagine a reading of that last paragraph that would take it to imply that most of our stressors are imaginary, or that I’m critiquing the behavior of stressed-out people. I’m not. I happen to think that my own stressors are perfectly real. My only point is that not many of the entries in my finely curated list of things to think about at 3am actually represent things that are happening, in real life, at any given moment. But the fact (and boy, is it ever a fact) that they exist as real-world potentialities is more than good enough for me. You’ve come to the wrong shop, dear reader, for a Bobby McFerrin retrospective.

Anyway, point is, we have zis power (pace Madeline Kahn), and our good old mammalian brains haven’t had a lot of time (again, in evolutionary terms) to keep up with it. The things that happen in our brains and bodies when we see a lion at the watering hole, and the things that happen when we think about the possibility of seeing a lion at the watering hole tomorrow, aren’t terribly different. And while seeing the lion in real life is a pretty finite deal with a fixed duration (one outcome or the other), there’s no upper limit on how often you can ponder the lion. Thus, in the minds of humans, chronic stress is born. Swap out the lion for the infinite anxieties of modern life, and away we go.

Where all of this really gets interesting is when we start to dig into what’s going on in the rest of the brain when we’re gearing up to run from a real, imagined or purely metaphorical predator. Turns out, a lot of it’s not good. Short term memory formation goes straight to shit. Cognition just tanks across the board. We make bad decisions, we make them poorly, and then (and this is important) we do so again. A unique feature human behavior under stress is that we tend to reuse the same lousy strategies again and again. We get stuck, very easily, in cognitive and behavioral ruts. We need to make a change – may even know that we need to make a change – but we don’t. We circle the drain.

What I find myself reflecting on, considering all of this, is my beloved business world. Particularly, I find myself thinking a lot about leadership, and how much of the business leadership I’ve witnessed over the last quarter century has missed these dynamics completely. It’s almost something of a corporate truism that “strong” leaders should create stress among their teams. There’s a suspicion of leaders who don’t. Why, after all, would a relaxed employee give their all? You want those people at least a little stressed out, all the time. You want to see it in their eyes. Makes you feel more sure that they’re getting something done. And yet, as we’re discussing, the established science is pretty well in on this one: a stressed out team will not perform at a higher level. It will, not to put too fine a point on it, fuck things up. People will not remember what you just told them to do. They will not stop doing that thing you just corrected them on. They will not make good, rational, data-driven decisions. They will not do these things, because neurologically, at least beyond a certain point, they no longer can.

I perceive two deadly sins here, and I’m working on purging my own leadership style of both. First is the sort of depressing reality that (and for this as for much of the discussion, I must again tip the ol’ chapeau to Robert Sapolsky of Stanford), one of the ways a stressed out primate can make itself feel better is to beat up on a lower-status primate. Most of us know intuitively that the best parts of ourselves don’t tend to come out under sustained stress; very much the opposite. Everyone whose ever been part of a hierarchical organization knows that shit rolls downhill. That’s problematic enough for a troop of baboons, but with my own team I’m striving (not always fruitfully) for a slightly higher level of interaction. None of us are perfect, but the people that work for me deserve better than a stressed-out alpha baboon.

Second, is the loathed tendency, so common and so destructive, for leaders to confuse motion with progress. Difficult problems are difficult. No one wants to deal with that nonsense. Getting a bunch of underlings with fair-to-middling communication skills into a room and trying to forensically reconstruct the nature of today’s train wreck is hard, unrewarding work and no one enjoys it. Accepting that the path forward will usually involve a half-dozen miserable trade offs resulting in, at best, a least-bad option, is a sobering, humbling task. How much more rewarding to simply clap your hands, bark a few inchoate orders and watch everyone scramble into action. Create a task force, designate a war room, order in a few lunches and demand results. How could it not work?

It never works. Never has. But boy, does it feel good to stand at the doorway and watch so many people working so hard on your order. The fact that no one, including you, has any idea what your order actually was is secondary. You, the leader, feel good. For a minute.

Until about 3am.

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