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

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Marcia Reynolds: Maybe mediocre people who move around can deal with novelty better than accomplished people. So, in truth, in corporations, the resistance to change is about trying new things, not fixing what is broken. And that resistance might even be greater at the higher, more accomplished levels of the organization.

Dr. Sapolsky: No doubt. I see this playing out in the higher corporate levels.  It’s really difficult to recognize that something is going wrong and needs to be changed. But I think it’s a thousand times harder to recognize that something’s right but nevertheless, it’s time to make a change.

For a lot of more moderate challenges, the most common solution is to do what you usually do, but you are expected to do it faster or harder or more times. Thus, when a real disaster comes along, people are accustomed to doing things a thou­ sand times more or faster than usual, instead of the leaders realizing it’s time for a different approach. And then in the corporate world, if you make a mistake, you bleed into the water and the sharks will smell it and eat you alive.

Marcia Reynolds: Thus taking away any sense of benevolence.

Dr. Sapolsky: Exactly And so we have resistance to change.

Marcia Reynolds: I can imagine too that with a successful executive, there would be no incentive to say “let’s try some new things for the hell of it,” even if that stimulates creativity and innovation. So what we have are people becoming more and more protective and closed to new ideas the higher they go up the ladder.

Dr. Sapolsky: Yes, just out of necessity. With certain exceptions, highly eminent, entrenched people have to fully believe or be convinced that the change is needed. But by then, the intuition or the rhythm of seeking new stuff has been lost; thus, you get a totally mechanical algorithmic way of doing something new. The leader keeps looking for a way to re-invent what worked before instead of embracing innovation. Even with aging radicals, they get very mechanical about trying to maintain the tumult in most cases, I would think.

Marcia Reynolds: Sounds like what we call crisis managers also fall into this trap. They keep the pot stirred, but in a way that they get to constantly look like the hero. They keep re-creating the same problems so they can show off the same skills over and over. Their value is to put out fires instead of inspiring creativity

I’m noticing the time, so let me just ask one more question. You talk a lot about the evils of Type A behavior and workaholics with their never-ending to-do lists. However, you can’t tell someone to just stop being that way, especially in a culture that condones that level of work. In our society, we compete for who has had the busier day. “You think your day was bad, let me tell you about mine.” But you said that this behavior has a huge cost, right?

Dr. Sapolsky: We talked about the optimal point, neurologically speaking, where stress overloads. But creativity in particular has this inverse u-curve. You can’t bull-doze your way through creativity. The problem is that there are so many set­ tings where you get rewarded for overdoing. In my world you have to have great postgraduate degrees, long CV’s, and that is what takes priority.

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