Have you ever had that situation at work where someone new in the organization, oh, say a new higher-up, comes into the organization and goes out of their way to disrupt things in the name of change and causes a lot of extra stress? They think they are being disruptive for the good of the organization. Sometimes that change has been good, but in most of the situations this new person does a lot of damage to the morale and the function of the organization. I’ve actually lived through this a few times now in my career and at different types of organizations. It always goes the same. New person makes big splash! Knocks some heads! Things are going to change around here ya see! And then boom. Next thing you know they are either out the door or at least out of the corner office. In their wake are the stressed out and shell-shocked team they leave behind.
Well, apparently this is how baboons normally live–knocking heads and going out of their way to stress each other out. This weekend I watched the National Geographic/Stanford University documentary called Stress: Portrait of a Killer. The major focus of the documentary was the work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky who has spent decades studying the physiology of stress. According to Sapolsky, baboons live in a very highly structured social hierarchy. They spend a few hours foraging a day, and then the rest of their time looking for ways to harass one another. And according to the research, the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the less stressed and healthier you are, and the lower you are the more stressed and less healthy you are. This research was also backed up in the documentary by some human research done in Great Britain among bureaucrats in the famous Whitehall study. The higher up…the less stressed the lower…the more stressed. This stress can cause cardiovascular problems, ages you faster and may also cause you to carry fat in “bad” places on your body.
But something interesting happened with the baboon troop that Sapolsky followed. The troop was foraging at a garbage dump and the higher up males who had the most access to the “choice” garbage accidently ingested tainted meat and died, leaving behind the females and the lower level males. The troop did not collapse. In the absence of the higher-up males–who happened to be the biggest bunch of jerky primates you can imagine (and if you don’t believe me check out Sapolsky’s book Memoir of a Primate), the females and the more “nice guy” baboons somehow made a change. They shifted the troop away from harassing one another. Now new males did move in–adolescents wandered in from different troops, would try to impose the old ways and eventually within six months would realize their jerkiness wasn’t tolerated and simply became “better” males.
I’m lucky to have also seen this happen in some of the organizations I’ve worked in. It is amazing what a calm, level-headed leader who expects a lot from their team and yet doesn’t pick on people can accomplish. And how much more worthwhile your work can feel under their guidance.
So how do you counteract the bad baboons? How can you counteract the stress in your life?
According to the documentary, bad stress can be counteracted by a couple of actions–connecting with others and by feeling you have more control over your situation. According to Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, mothers of disabled children live extremely stressed lives which then lead to shortened telomeres (which is a whole other interesting subject) and therefore significantly shortened lives by premature aging. But this stress can be alleviated by what? Connection with others in similar situations. Simply meeting and talking with other mothers of disabled children alleviated stress.
So when faced with the baboons at work–connect and talk and help others. And find a way to gain back control. That study of bureaucrats also showed that when people feel they have a sense of control over their situation or that things are fair or there is justice at work–this can also counteract the bad stress and make a healthier workplace for all.