What we can Learn from Baboons…


We’ve all been on holiday. We’ve all experienced it.

For me, it comes around lunchtime on the third day…

You’ve finally hauled yourself off the sun lounger and wandered down to the beach restaurant. There’s a plate of calamari in front of you. A glass of cold beer at your elbow, the condensation running down the glass. The sun’s on your back. And suddenly you feel it.

You feel the muscles in your back relax. You feel the tension go out of your shoulders. At last, you’re relaxed. Stress? What stress?

But holidays end. You come home. Go back to work. Delete 300 e-mails. Drift back into the old routine. And before you know it, the muscles in your back are as knotted as they ever were…

So let me break off here, and consider two species which are closely connected: the baboon, and the British civil servant.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University is a primatologist. And every year, he forsakes the charms of California for the African jungle, where he studies baboons. Specifically, he studies their social structure and stress levels.

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Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Public Health at University College London. He’s stayed rather closer to home, and conducted a 40 year study into the British civil servant, looking at 18,000 members of the service from the lowest new entrant right up to Sir Humphrey level.

Both studies come to the same conclusion: the higher up the social order you are, the less stress you suffer. Lower ranking baboons had higher heart rates and higher blood pressure than their leaders: their arteries contained more plaque, significantly increasing their risk of a heart attack.

Marmot’s findings mirrored those of Sapolsky. Men in lower employment grades were more likely to die prematurely: there was a ‘social gradient’ for mortality. Subsequent studies involving women revealed a similar pattern.

Why? Surely those at top of the tree – literally and figuratively – have bigger decisions to make? Protecting the troop, pleasing the new PM…

Apparently not: Sapolsky identified five factors that are responsible for the more stress/lower down the pecking order correlation:

  • You feel like you have no control
  • You’re not getting any predictive information – how bad is this going to be? How long will it last, and so on
  • You feel trapped
  • You interpret things as getting worse
  • And you’ve no support system or ‘shoulder to cry on’

And now we’re coming closer to home. Most people reading this blog will be the top baboon, the alpha male or female in their organisation. But every single one of us has known that feeling of not being in control of our business, of feeling trapped, of not knowing how things will turn out – and of not having anyone who truly understands what the problem is. And therein lies the stress – and the inherent dangers that come with it.

I think I’ve done a reasonable job of eliminating stress in my life, but on the third day of the holiday I can still feel the muscles in my back loosening. Much as I like that moment, I’d prefer it didn’t happen. So one of my key goals for the rest of this year is to remove even more stress from my life: given the responsibilities I’m taking on, that’s not going to be easy – but I’m determined to do it.

As a starting point, I’ve just written down all the factors that cause me stress: there are six of them. So here’s a firm commitment: by the end of this year I’ll have the list down to three. And I challenge you to do the same. Make your list, and commit to reducing it by 50% over the next 4½ months.

…And by all means share it with your fellow Board members, the ultimate ‘shoulder to cry on.’ Whatever you’ve written down, it’ll be mirrored around the table. Much more importantly, though, the solutions will also be around the TAB table –in the knowledge, insight and experience of your fellow baboons…

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One comment

  1. simonjhudson · August 12

    6+ stressors…
    1. Badly behaving staff, especially where they don’t treat others as I would have them treated
    2. Too much email, even after aggressive FYI ignoring, use of MS Clutter and constant unsubscribes
    3. Microsoft licence management (detail, detail detail)
    4. Having to explain and justify the obvious (obvious to me)
    5. Information overload (see email)
    6. Not having time to do the thing I love
    7. Mess, chaos and no one else seeking to tidy things up proactively (though you should see my desk!)

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