When it finds itself on the losing end of a social encounter, a baboon has a choice. Soothe itself by getting groomed by another baboon, or vent its anger on a lower-ranking baboon.

The higher up the baboon, the more likely choice #2 will prevail. Sound familiar?

As Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biology, Neurology & Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, says, “Baboons and us are surprisingly similar … they can devote a large part of each day to making each other absolutely miserable with social stress.”

Sapolsky has found that much of the aggression displayed by baboons is in fact a stress response.

That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Because while we are not baboons and we don’t live in the wild, we do vent stress via aggression.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the wilds of the workplace:

63% of US workers are ready to quit their job to avoid work-related stress and 84% of American workers say poorly trained people managers create unnecessary stress.

It’s been long established that bad bosses are the #1 reason people quit their jobs. There’s now an entire taxonomy of “toxic managers” along with user guides on how to manage them.

Any toxic behavior in the workplace is destructive; but when the source of toxic behavior is your boss, it’s not only demoralizing but a health hazard.

But what about the boss?

If the boss is causing stress for others, doesn’t it stand to reason that they are just doing what baboons are doing? Venting their stress on others?

Toxic behavior is stress behavior. Because most bad bosses (and baboons) are potentially good but fail under stress. Research on managerial failure shows that the most common root cause of that failure is stress.

While power doesn’t cause bad behavior, it enables it. It enables managers who can’t handle stress to behave badly—and get away with it.

But to understand how stress leads to bad leadership, we have to distinguish power from rank.

Stress is the experience of managing a threat. And to be threatened is a drop of rank, of your momentary status. You still have power, but your rank, where you stand relative to others, and relative to the situation, fluctuates:

  • You’re the boss, but a critical comment from your boss sends your blood pressure to the roof; you begin to sweat, your mind races, and before you know it, you’ve plummeted into a low-rank state.
  • You are the CEO but have to give a presentation to unhappy shareholders or testify at a Congressional hearing.
  • You are the teacher, but a group of students rebel and you lose control of the classroom.
  • You’re a parent at your wits ends with your baby’s incessant crying, and you just want to sit down and cry yourself.

Under threat, our rank drops, and our limbic system takes over. The toxic behaviors we see in managers are those well-known limbic responses to threats: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These are perfectly appropriate to survive in the wild but are a disaster in the workplace.


The fight response is meant to remove the source of the threat, i.e., the stressor.

Translated into a workplace, that looks like yelling at the person questioning your idea or bringing bad news.

It looks like micromanaging and taking over a project out of fear that it won’t get done, or done right.

It looks like defending against a competitor by demeaning or belittling them in public, enhancing your status by bragging, or attempting to lower their status by gossiping and political maneuvering.

Flight and Freeze.

Flight, or fleeing, doesn’t remove the threat but removes you from the proximity of the threat.

And if you can’t remove yourself, you can avoid detection by standing very still—freezing. Flight and freeze behaviors are in fact the most common cause of leadership derailment.

These include disengaging, being aloof, avoiding conflict, delaying action, and failing to make decisions.

Bosses who flee or freeze abdicate responsibility. They don’t hold people accountable.

And these errors of omission may not seem as egregious as the more toxic behaviors of the fight response, but they too make a mess and come with a huge price tag.


Finally, there is the fawning stress response. One way to manage a threat is to reduce the threat you pose to the other. Show yourself to be a friend, not a foe.

Bosses who fawn drop their power. They don’t fail to act, like those who flee or freeze but choose to act harmless. They tell jokes. They over-share. They flatter and ingratiate themselves.

But it’s not authentic when it’s used to avoid the emotional discomfort and risk of not being liked, being criticized, or making decisions that others won’t be liked.

So, what can we do about it?

We can do many things to mitigate these toxic behaviors, but the first is to rethink how we train people to be leaders.

Train under stress.

Athletes train under stress. The military trains its leaders to lead under stress, to remain calm under pressure and quickly adapt to new situations and requirements.

And while stress is a constant in the workplace, the rule and not the exception, managers and leaders do not train for it. But they should. They should learn how to operate under stress, and to understand how their emotions and behaviors are impacted by stress. They need to learn how recognize the triggers that lead to a stress response and be given skills and tools for responding effectively under pressure and for maintaining self-control. And like athletes and soldiers, they should be taught how to access and apply their know-how under adverse and extreme conditions.

Build portable power.

In addition to learning how to remain calm and centered, leaders need to learn how to adapt their tools as the situation changes.

Threats and stress are situational. In one situation, you need to act decisively. But in another, like with a pandemic or racial reckoning, you need to lean in with empathy and care. For each challenge leaders face, they need to match their tactic to the situation, which means having many different tools—different kinds of power—in their toolkit.

But most leaders don’t have a deep toolkit.

They have their one style, one preferred power they lean on to get the job done. Their ‘go-to’ way of managing is a well-oiled neural pathway. And using it feels comfortable and affirming, even when it leads to poor outcomes.

Having portable powers means you can adapt and adjust to situations of distress or despair. You can stay present and effective no matter the situation because you have the tools for the job and the comfort in using them.

Build strong social support.

If there’s one thing that buffers against stress, it’s social support. But the cliché holds true: it’s lonely at the top.

It’s hard to make friends at work because you can’t be friends with those you direct. Your peers are often competitors, and work is not a context known for intimacy and contact.

Yet, having friends, having people to talk to about your frustrations, feelings, and needs with others has been shown to mitigate all kinds of stress-related health problems.

When you’re in fight, flight, flee, or fawn mode it feels counterintuitive, or downright wrong, to reach out, open up, and be vulnerable.

But it’s precisely what we need to do. We may want to hunker down, isolate, and battle our way through, but this exacerbates the lonely and isolating experience, which can lead to even more anger, bitterness, or resentment.

It shouldn’t be left to managers or leaders to seek out friends. Instead, there should be a coach or mentor assigned to managers: someone to talk over troubles with, to be a confidant, and to provide counsel. And not just business counsel, but counsel about the emotions, troubles, and pressures they’re dealing with.

If we can correlate toxic behavior with the amount of stress a leader feels, and their ability (or inability) to manage that stress, then leadership development should put stress management front and center by teaching managers competencies for leading well under stress—which is, after all, the rule and not the exception.

Thanks for reading!