The Thoughtful Leader

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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