Home Concepts Managing Stress & Challenges Zebras and Lions in the Workplace: An Interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Zebras and Lions in the Workplace: An Interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky

27 min read

So, you’ve got this classic inverse relationship. You don’t want to get rid of stress. You want to have just transient moderate stressors, which we call stimulation. What’s most striking about that is how transient, moderate stressors, not only do all those good things, they make you feel great. They cause the brain to release dopamine in a region where that chemical has a lot to do with pleasure and anticipation. But again, once it turns into chronic stress, the dopamine levels get depleted, which means loss of pleasure, depression and worse.

So, what winds up being the relevant question is calibration: what is one person’s stimulation is another person’s depression. Where are the limits? How much stress should someone welcome into their day, and when do they turn it off?

On the other hand, let’s look at implicit anxiety-related learning, such as learning fear responses. In that realm, we are looking at a different part of the brain—the amygdala. Here, every type of stress makes that part of the brain work better, faster, and grow new connections, as the synapses are more excitable. That’s the case with trauma, that’s post-traumatic stress disorder; you show someone subliminal pictures (ones that don’t even register in the cortex) and the metabolic reactions light up. When you have a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, the light stays on. Because what stress does is cause that part of the brain to work better than its supposed to. It doesn’t get damaged. People don’t forget what they fear. The brain is very efficient at remembering fear. This is a different response than the regular learning of knowledge and skills—where a little stress is great but a lot is awful. But it is unpredictable what can activate this type of memory, even in the workplace.

Marcia Reynolds: Let’s say a company has a big lay-off, or even just talking about it, or there’s a merger corning up and people become paralyzed and can’t work. What is the damage from this type of fear? What do these events create in terms of people’s ability to accept change or not, or even to do their work well at all?

Dr. Sapolsky: What’s really interesting is there are some studies showing that the increase in blood pressure you get when people are getting laid off, doesn’t come when people are actually getting laid off. Instead, it comes with the first threat of it. So, the damage comes when people are marinating in anticipation, in the threat menace, which can last for months or years. It’s the anxiety over the future that has the worst effect. You don’t just turn on your stress response when you’ve been slashed by a predator, or when you’ve lost your job. For physiologically irrational reasons, you turn it on at the first hint that something is up. The menace of occupational stressors is as bad as and as overwhelming to the physiology of the body as the disasters themselves.

Marcia Reynolds: This seems to relate to the memory of fear. People go through this type of threat and menace, even if it is just gossip, and have a strong stress response that is lodged in the amygdala. And then anytime their brain perceives that this may happen again in their company, or any other company, anything that their boss might say that could possibly indicate that this could happen, the message triggers the stress response again. So, executives and managers must consider the emotional fall-out of their communications at all times, even through email. There is no “rationality” to this. If the brain anticipates the threat, it reacts and impedes productivity.

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