The Thoughtful Leader

Tag Archives: Differentiation Of Self

The Balance of Thoughts and Feelings at Work

I recently came across a brief article (Harvard Magazine, January-February 2012, pp. 11-12) that described some interesting research conducted by a Harvard professor of social sciences, Joshua Greene. Greene is a neuroscientist and uses brain-scanning technology to examine the interplay between emotions and reason, with a focus on how these two forces affect moral choices.
While reading about Greene’s work, I immediately thought of Murray Bowen’s concept of Differentiation of Self which describes variation in the ways people are guided by thinking and/or feeling in their close relationships, when under stress, when making decisions, and when faced with significant choices at home, at work, and in the wider world. According to Bowen, there is always a balance between thinking and feeling, but people for whom the thinking capacity predominates, usually function at a higher level than those for whom the feeling capacity predominates. In other words, Thinkers merit a higher score on Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation than Feelers.
Greene found that when he used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), he could track the locations of reasoning and emotions in the brain and the intensity of activity in those locations when a person is under stress or faced with a moral choice. “Deliberative reasoning, for instance, is housed in the prefrontal cortex, whereas the amygdala is considered the seat of the emotions. By monitoring blood flow to these areas, fMRI allows Greene and his colleges to observe” the interface between rationality and emotion.
What Greene found was that reason “cannot function independently of emotion, even in people who tend to be more rational decision-makers.” Reason “by itself doesn’t have any ends, or goals,” Greene says. “It can tell you what will happen if you do this or that, and whether or not A and B are consistent with each other. But it can’t make the decision for you.” Reason requires emotion to give energy and direction to decision-making. However, “even though emotions will probably always affect people’s decisions, Greene thinks their input can – and should – be minimized in certain scenarios… He says that our emotions are there for a reason and they do a lot of good, but they also get us into trouble…”
This research reaffirms Bowen’s hypothesis that thinking and feeling operate together to some extent. We need both thinking and feeling in order to make wise decisions and manage our relationships effectively, although the balance between the two will determine our maturity level and the wisdom of our choices. Greene, like Bowen, indicates that emotions are important, but shouldn’t be determinative in decision-making.
How does this knowledge play out in the workplace for you? How aware are you of the balance between thinking and feeling in your responses to colleagues or to stressful work situations? Can you consciously moderate the impact of your emotional reactivity on the clarity of your thinking? After you have done your best thinking about a problem, how do you harness the emotional energy that will help you implement a reasonable plan? I look forward to hearing your answers to these questions.
Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD


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

Recent Debates in Congress

In trying to figure out what the emotional process was that swept through the U.S. Congress over the past few months, I came across an article by Stephanie J. Ferrera, MSW, called “Collective Intelligence and Differentiation of Self” (Family Systems Forum, Volume 13, Number 2, pp. 3-4).  Ferrera describes the difference between the way an anxious group makes decisions and the way a “collection of individuals” makes decisions.  In an anxious group “the combination of togetherness pressure and emotional reactivity plays out in a thousand ways: focus on others, comparing self with others, status sensitivity, low tolerance for differences…, pressure on leaders to take charge but undermining them when they do.”  With a “collection of individuals” each person can be calm, flexible, have a defined mission, focus on goals, and try to develop a climate of “thoughtful collaboration.”

A “collection of individuals” can also take responsibility for their own individual problems, tasks, and opportunities; communication among them is open and clear; and they monitor their emotional process so that they can work effectively together.

This seems to be a pretty good description of the way one would want the U.S. Congress to function when making important political and financial decisions for the country, and yet many of our elected representatives in Washington have apparently veered off course into anxious reactivity, as they express rigidly polarized “positions,” and have a very low tolerance for differences.  The sources of societal anxiety these days are huge, including an economy in a long-term downward slide, high unemployment, housing foreclosures, climate change, resource depletion, and the winding down of two wars.  It’s easy to be critical of the responses of leaders who are faced with making important decisions while under so much pressure to “do the right thing.”  How can one keep one’s feet on the ground, maintain clear, calm thinking, and collaborate responsibly with one’s fellow decision-makers when the stakes are so high, and mistakes have such long-lasting consequences?

How would you be doing, if you had been in Congress this year?  Would societal pressures have swept you into either automatic agreement or automatic opposition to the issues at hand, without giving yourself time to define your own thinking and decide how you could collaborate most effectively with your peers?  Of course it is incredibly hard to predict our own reactivity when the stressors are really high.  We like to think that our “better selves” would prevail, but who knows.

Meanwhile we must all think carefully about who we want to have representing us and making the big decisions in Washington, as political, economic, and social intensity mounts in the coming years.  The beauty of a democracy is that there is a regular evaluation process.  We need to elect and re-elect representatives who are high on the scale of differentiation, whose decisions are rooted in well-defined principles, who can manage their anxiety when under pressure, and who can collaborate effectively as a “collection of individuals.”  We won’t always agree with all their decisions, but we must insist that they are people of integrity and long-term vision, who are not just reacting to the anxieties of the moment, while jumping through hoops to please the voters and get re-elected over and over again.

Who are these people?   What can we learn about how they handled major life challenges growing up?  What does that tell us about their emotional maturity level and their capacity to keep thinking and resisting the contagion of anxiety in other settings?  What kind of leaders have they been in the past that will give us a clue as to the kinds of leaders they will be in the future?  It may be hard to find the answers to these questions, but as voters we must look beyond the superficialities of campaign literature, news headlines, and TV commentary, and seek substantial verifiable facts about the long-term functioning of our elected leaders.  Those we choose will inevitably reflect our own maturity level as a society, and we are ultimately responsible when they fall short.

Please reread Chapter 5 in our book, “Leading a Business in Anxious Times.”  It is entitled, “Differentiation: The Key to Leadership in Anxious Times,” and it may perhaps remind you of the qualities that will serve you best in your own role as an organizational leader, as well as the qualities we want to see in our societal leaders.

Katharine Baker