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  • Can business learn from baboons? You bet

Photonics Spectra
Aug 1997
R. Winn Hardin

STANFORD, Calif. -- It's a jungle out there.

No one knows this better than Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroscience and biology at Stanford University. For years, Sapolsky has investigated the biological causes and ramifications of stress in baboons and rats. He journeys to East Africa each year to observe animals in the wild and to learn how coping mechanisms, personality and hierarchal position affect stress.

As a result, Sapolsky has some advice for business executives.

Executive stress syndrome. "[It's] a myth, mostly put out by executives. It's middle management that has ... the killing combination of responsibility without autonomy." Interestingly, he said there is a direct correlation between successful managers and those who deal with stress well.
Each individual handles stress differently. Releasing stress on the weekends simply will not do it, Sapolsky said. The best way to cope with stress is to change your habits every day for about 20 to 30 minutes. It is an individual decision as to what is the best way to relieve personal stress, whether it be prayer, playing the trombone or reading poetry on the company lawn. A good way to determine if an activity is successful is biofeedback, or actually measuring blood pressure, cholesterol levels, etc., to determine if the stress-release technique works.
Controlling the uncontrollable. In many cases, stress is a result of the uncontrollable, such as a boss who insists on wasting time with trivia. Compounding this is an implicit knowledge that the worker never knows when the boss is going to strike, which causes more stress. Sapolsky suggests setting up a daily meeting with your boss. "That way, you can write off two to three o'clock every day, but you're not without a warning."
Onerous tasks. Along the same lines, instead of putting off and worrying about a boring project, set up a well-defined situation to complete the task on your terms; in other words, "I'm going to decide what's on the radio when I do it."
Openly discussing work at work. Often referred to by the simple slogan, "Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?" Sapolsky insists a peer group at work is critical to relieving stress. Frequently a significant other cannot completely understand either what has happened at work or its context. This is particularly difficult for employees well along the corporate ladder, he said, because the number of available peers dwindles. When combined with the modern belief that openly discussing work is like "bleeding in an ocean full of sharks," the result is a high-stress situation for those trying to reach the top.
Pick your fights. The successful animal is not always the one who wins a fight, but more often the one who never had to fight in the first place. When giving corporate seminars on how to handle stress, Sapolsky prefers an old Quaker saying: "In the face of strong winds, let me be a blade of grass. In the face of strong walls, let me be a gust of wind."

Sapolsky's latest book, The Trouble with Testosterone, published by Simon and Schuster/Scribner is a compilation of essays appearing in several national magazines in which the author discusses stress behaviors in people and animals. G

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