A new study just out from James Gross of Stanford University and six other researchers has shown that the higher people go as a leader, the less stress they experience. It turns out that being the CEO is less stressful than being a senior manager. It's an intriguing idea, as it flies in the face of the current thinking about leadership, which has supported the notion that top leaders are under enormous stress.
But new research in neuroscience tends to support Gross's findings. One of the big ideas that has emerged out of the connection between neuroscience and leadership is that leaders are largely motivated by what we've come to call the SCARF model. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness — the five social experiences that create strong threats or rewards in the brain.
From the SCARF perspective, while top leaders might have plenty of stress, they also have lots of rewards that offset this stress. They obviously have very high status. Cameron Anderson from Berkely showed in a study that respect from others (which comes from having high status) mattered more than money for happiness in life. He defined the term "local status," (which is how you rank compared to people around you), and found that it was more important in terms of personal happiness than socioeconomic status. Anderson believed that high local status is like the "gift that keeps on giving," one of the few rewards that will not diminish much in value over time. So while leaders might be stressed, this is offset by high status, which literally activates the reward centers in the brain.
What about the other SCARF domains? Senior leaders have higher certainty than most people, with long term contracts and big pay packages giving them the confidence and wherewithal to weather economic storms. Studies show that a sense of certainty is deeply rewarding, in and of itself, whereas the experience of uncertainty creates further stress in the brain.
As the Gross study explored, senior leaders also have a lot more autonomy (what this study calls a sense of control) than lower level leaders. A sense of autonomy also activates a strong reward response.
Finally, I suspect that senior leaders perceive the world as being quite fair (as most people would if paid $50 million a year,) giving them a reward in this domain too.
So while senior leaders might have plenty of stress, they experience rewards from at least four of the five domains that could be offsetting this stress. Without even considering the big pay packets, we can see that senior leaders in theory may be a whole lot happier than is widely believed.
However, like many studies, Gross' finding doesn't tell the whole story. The average large company might have one CEO, an executive team of 20, and then 1,000 other people in "leadership" roles, out of a staff of, say, 100,000. So, we've learned that 21 people out of 100,000 are less stressed than we thought. What about the rest of the leaders in that firm?
Let's look at followership from the SCARF perspective. Speaking to one's boss is likely to put employees into a threat (stress) state, because the employee has less status, less certainty, and less autonomy. When someone is feeling under threat, small threats can become much larger. Imagine how people feel about their boss when the employee experiences large threats, like a sudden drop in income and assets, and an increase in uncertainty because of global economic conditions.
In short, while top bosses are less stressed than we thought, the life of the average manager, the people who make up much of the middle class, is getting more stressful than ever. As one example, more people than ever are staying connected while on vacation, yet the trend is the other direction for senior executives.
There is another side to top leaders being generally "happy," which I think deserves teasing out. First, experiencing positive affect makes you more likely to perceive other people's situations as positive, even when they are not. Second, a number of studies show that high social status tends to make people less aware of social cues. Third, high cognitive load, which senior leaders indeed experience, makes it harder to fully grasp how others experience the world. Finally, high cognitive load also makes it harder to displace the well documented "false consensus effect," which is the tendency to automatically assume other people feel the way that you do.
So, senior leaders might be happier than we thought, though this mental state combined with their position could be the source of how deeply unaware they can be of the stress that others are experiencing.
Perhaps senior leaders don't need to learn to manage stress better after all. They need to learn to recognize and help other people deal with theirs. This idea, called "social regulation," will be fleshed out by neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner from Columbia at our upcoming NeuroLeadership Summit beginning October 15.
The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.
(This post was originally published at the Harvard Business Review blog.)