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With power comes great responsibility and also it has always been assumed considerable stress.

But a team of academics have discovered that those at the top appear to experience lower levels of stress than those individuals who are not in positions of responsibility.

The research team, led by Jennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, looked at leaders from the public and private sectors and included military officers, business executives, government officials and heads of non-profits from around the world.

The team found that stress levels – as measured by stress hormones such as cortisol – were lower in leaders than in non-leaders. A further study found that even among leaders those at the very top were less stressed than their lesser ranked peers.

The academics believe that these stress levels can be explained by feelings of control.

“Our evidence indicates that higher ranking leaders have a greater sense of control in their lives,” says Prof Lerner. This would explain why these individuals had lower levels of cortisol she adds. However, Prof Lerner says that an alternative explanation may be that some individuals are able to rise to the top because they are able “to insulate themselves from the stresses that go with increased responsibility”.

The research – “Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.. The research team consists of Amy Cuddy, associate professor at Harvard Business School, James Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford University, Christopher Oveis , assistant professor of management and strategy at the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego, Gary Sherman a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard doctoral students Julia Jooa Lee and Jonathan Renshon.

● Inspired in part by her personal experience as one of a few female PhD students in Harvard’s computer science and economics department Katherine Milkman has been examining discrimination against women and minority candidates before they apply for a job.

Now a professor of operations and information management at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, Prof Milkman wanted to discover what happened to these applicants in the run up to a job application – did they receive the same levels of encouragement and access to the same amount of “insider” information as white male applicants.

Receiving encouragement and information about the job ahead of a job application can be very important say the academics. An individual who seeks but does not receive any encouragement may well be too discouraged to pursue any job opportunity.

With colleagues Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Dolly Chugh of New York University, Prof Milkman set out to explore how prospective applicants to doctoral programmes were treated. They discovered that professors were less likely to be responsive to women and minority candidates and that this level of unresponsiveness was greater in academic disciplines that paid more and at private institutions where faculty salaries are higher on average.

“In a lot of industries you need insider information to successfully break in. There are a lot of things that an insider knows that an outsider wouldn’t and an applicant who receives encouragement and mentoring is therefore at a huge advantage,” says Prof Milkman.

The researchers sent emails – from fictional prospective doctoral students – to 6,500 professors at 258 US universities, representing 89 disciplines asking for meetings. The names of these students were manipulated to indicate gender and race and some of the meeting requests were for the same day while other requests were for a week later.

While there was hardly any difference in the response rate when prospective students asked for an immediate meeting, when the meeting request was for a week later the researchers found that white male candidates were 26 per cent more likely to schedule a meeting successfully and 16 per cent more likely to receive a response.

Prof Milkman says that varying the time was important because “When you are focused on the now …you are not thinking about the why. Discrimination really comes out when people are thinking about why to meet with someone.” Having a lead time of a week she adds gives an individual the chance to evaluate whether or not the meeting is worthwhile.

‘Temporal distance and discrimination: an audit study in academia’ is published in Psychological Science and ‘Heterogeneity in discrimination? A field experiment’ is published online at the Social Science Research Network.


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