Have you ever been to a leadership conference that’s specifically a men’s leadership conference? Okay, there are likely a few, but most frequently we just call men’s leadership — ummm, leadership. But excellent leadership shouldn’t be defined by any gender. We need the spectrum from masculine to feminine qualities in order to not miss important gaps in the way we approach problem solving, risk, and our general approach to how business gets done. For too long, we’ve been preaching masculine leadership to women and then holding separate women’s leadership conferences to which men aren’t invited. I think it’s time that men get the invitation to better understand some of the benefits of women’s leadership. I’m going to explore one area of women’s leadership that I think it’s high time all genders embrace – the tend and befriend stress response. 

As a stress physiologist, I spent years earning my PhD and studying all of the classic experiments around hormones and behavior. But the studies I read about were often highly biased. In laboratory studies of biological responses to stress, only 17 % of subjects were women up to the year 1995! It was recently that a breakthrough paper was published suggesting a significant difference in the stress response between males and females. While for more than a half-century, we’ve known about the tendency for humans to respond to stress with ‘fight or flight’ it wasn’t until the year 2000 that a group of researchers suggested that females have a significantly different response – ”tend and befriend.” Tend refers to a woman’s reaction to care for and nurture MORE during times of stress, and the befriending refers to her seeking a support network, and reliance on others. 

 

Here’s why this response is so critical to understand for leadership. 

We are, and it seems we might always be, living with unprecedented levels of stress. A pandemic, inflation, kids screaming, email boxes filling, phones buzzing and Kathy from accounting needing those numbers today! Stress isn’t going anywhere. So if we are constantly reacting to it with fight or flight that often means we are causing more problems than we are solving. What if we were to take a more feminine approach to stress? 

A fascinating study exploring parental behavior and job stress demonstrated that fathers who had a stressful workday were more likely to be either irritable or less responsive with their children, whereas mothers reacted the opposite. They were more likely to be more responsive, nurturing and connected with their children after a stressful day.  Despite that fact that our employees aren’t our children, it’s not a huge leap to make to expect this behavior to play out in our teams as well. 

Research shows that under conditions of stress, women are substantially more likely to affiliate with and care deeply for others. In fact, several scientists have cited this feminine tendency to seek and mobilize social support, as ‘”one of the most robust gender differences in adult human behavior.” This is a huge missed opportunity for a more methodical, long-term workplace defense in the face of what seems to be our neverending mode of crisis.

Imagine working on a team lead not with fear, avoidance, and aggression, but one in which nurturing, expanding social connections and kindness was the norm. I think you can see where I’m going here. 

Men, don’t worry….while there is evidence that this is likely based at least in part on our physiology, there is a lot of cultural evidence for being able to adapt a more feminine response to stress. We may not get to control our physiology, but we do have an opportunity to control our first external reaction to it. What kind of stress response do you want to have?