The Thoughtful Leader

Monthly Archives: November 2011

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The Tending Instinct: An Alternate Stress Response

Book Review of The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We are and How We Live by Shelley E. Taylor (Henry Holt and Company, 2002).
Shelley Taylor is a professor of psychology at UCLA who specializes in research on stress. Several years ago she and some doctoral students were attending a lecture on responses to threat in laboratory rats. The lecturer emphasized the usual “fight or flight” response that we think of as typical reactions to threat or stress. As Dr. Taylor discussed the lecture with her students afterwards, she realized that she had often observed different reactions to stress when studying humans. One of her students commented that, “You know animal researchers study only male rats… Female rats have such rapid hormonal changes that you can’t get a clear picture of their stress responses.” Another student noted that, “Most of the biological studies of human stress use only men, too,” apparently for the same reason.
The male bias in stress research had been “a well-kept secret” for Taylor, and when she looked into it more deeply, she discovered that “prior to the mid-1990s, only about 17 percent of the participants in studies of biological responses to stress were women.” This led her to further research on female responses to stress, and she found that “females of all species, including humans, have been the primary caretakers of offspring, and females’ responses to stress… have evolved so as to include some measure of protection for their children” or others they care for. She also found that women turn to social groups in times of stress. She and her students began to broaden the accepted definitions of stress to include what they had come to see as common female behaviors when under threat, including protecting offspring and turning to friends for support. According to their discoveries, the stress response had to include “tending and befriending,” as well as “fight or flight.”
Taylor’s book, The Tending Instinct, explores this discovery in much fascinating detail, as she describes her subsequent research on the evolutionary and hormonal underpinnings of these patterns in women. The book includes chapters on “tending in marriage,” women’s friendships, the “social context of tending,” and then a final chapter on “the tending society.” This last chapter is perhaps most relevant for readers of Leading a Business in Anxious Times.
Taylor references an article from Business Week that reviews several surveys of male and female behavior in the workplace: “Whereas men and women were equivalent in strategic planning skills and issue analyses, women consistently outperformed men in motivating others, fostering communication, and listening to others,” skills dependent on knowing how to “tend and befriend” that women acquire through their biological responses to life stress. It isn’t that men don’t also have these capacities, but their hormonal make-up leads them more in the direction of “fight or flight” responses to stress. Taylor quotes a business consultant as saying that men try “to live up to an outmoded stereotype of what a male leaders should be like – aggressive, controlling, dictating solutions to problems, instead of building consensus.”
Systems-based leadership wouldn’t draw such sharp contrasts in human behavior based on gender differences alone, but would also include the level of differentiation of self in assessing stress responses. Our assumption would be that men and women who are low on the scale of differentiation would probably react to stress within the traditional frameworks of gender stereotyping. However, men and women who are higher on the scale have access to a broader range of stress responses than those who are lower on the scale. A highly differentiated male or female business leader would be able to choose whether or not to tend, befriend, fight or flee, depending on what was appropriate to the situation. He or she might also see other options when under extreme stress, such as managing self calmly and non-impulsively, looking for a broad-based assessment of the situation before reacting, searching for constructive, problem-solving alliances with colleagues, and negotiating differences effectively.
Taylor’s book raises fascinating challenges to traditional views about the stress response, but also leaves out the variation in maturity that comes from the families we grew up in and the learning we have acquired in meeting life’s challenges. It’s well written and anecdotal as well as scientific, so I encourage you to read it, broaden your own lens about the stress response, and think about where your stress responses at work might fit, if the scale of differentiation were included.
Katharine Gratwick Baker


Achieving Balance through Leadership in a World Increasingly Out of Balance

I awoke yesterday morning to a news report on my local television station in which a TV host and comedian had suggested to viewers that they hide their children’s Halloween candy and tell them they had eaten it; then viewers were asked to make a video of the children’s reactions and post it on The report went on to show several of the posted videos of the children bursting into tears. It was cruel and totally unfunny.

I wondered how parents could be so easily persuaded to commit such an unloving act toward their child. Did it rise to the level of child abuse? Child abuse is behavior that is counter to the natural instincts of parents to protect their offspring. Parents who took those videos of their children’s reactions to a mean trick probably don’t see themselves as child abusers, but at the very least theirs was behavior that was immature and showed poor judgment.

From an emotional systems perspective, it is reactive behavior, and not thoughtful. It is a symptom of an increasingly anxious society in which television, radio and the internet can spread anxiety around the globe in an instant. More than ever, we need mature leaders at all levels of our society—at home and in our businesses, schools, local communities, nationally and internationally. We need adults to behave like adults, and not to be unnecessarily cruel to their children, employees, colleagues, friends or relatives.

I don’t need to enumerate all of the stresses on adults in our society; neither do I claim to be immune from the anxiety that is all around me. I lead a company that provides data quality management services in the U.S. healthcare industry, and like other sectors in our society, its leaders must cope with a difficult economy, a shortage of resources, the increasing needs of an aging population, the challenges of new technology and changing regulatory requirements. I am vulnerable to absorbing the anxiety around me and spreading it to others, but as a leader I must try to resist doing that.

I seek the balance in my life necessary to manage my own anxiety, so that I can be a responsible leader. As a business owner I have a responsibility to lead my clients and my colleagues; and, as spouse, step parent and grandparent, I have a responsibility to be a leader in my family. That means my first priority is to manage my anxiety—to listen, observe, think, and act on facts—not just react to the anxious behavior around me, such as an irresponsible suggestion from a TV host. For me that means getting off auto-pilot and taking time for fun, for socializing with friends and family, or taking long walks without my iPod or cell phone. I must take time to recharge my own internal batteries. When I do that, I am in better balance, and I can hear the emotional meanings behind what is being said at work or at home. I can see more broadly, explore more options, and make more thoughtful choices. It’s not easy, but it’s important, because being calm is contagious too. If I can be present with others in a way that enables them to stop reacting and start thinking, then I am leading, both at home and in the workplace.

Leslie Ann Fox