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Modupe Akinola on the Surprising Benefits of Stress, Multitasking, and Gender Differences at Work

October 28, 2021

Business success entails much more than crunching numbers and applying formulas. “Business is relational,” explains organizational behavior management scholar Modupe Akinola. “It’s people interacting with people to produce outcomes.” The perceptions and behaviors that drive those interactions and impact those outcomes constitute Akinola’s field of study.

Akinola uses psychological and physiological metrics to explore the positive and negative ramifications of stress, how multitasking can spur creativity, and the ways gender-related expectations impact professional performance and outcomes. The research may sound highly technical; fortunately, Akinola has a gift for framing her insights in plain, straightforward language that’s as accessible to C-suite executives as to her fellow scientists.

Akinola teaches in the Advanced Management Program, one of over 60 offerings from the Columbia Business School Executive Education division. Combining scholarly research and practical guidance in a blended online, live online, and in-person format, the Advanced Management Program delivers cutting-edge insights to senior executives eager to develop new leadership skills, expand their professional networks, and catch up on the latest research so they can more effectively overcome business challenges. We recently sat down with Akinola to discuss what her research reveals about top-level business professionals.

You’ve done a lot of research on stress in the workplace. How do the senior leaders in the Advanced Management Program respond to stress, and how can they improve their stress management strategies?

Business leaders in the Advanced Management Program face so many different stressors — intense workloads, time pressure, deadlines, all the responsibilities they have. The dominant perspective on stress is that we should avoid it or reduce it, and that’s true to an extent. However, we can all think of times when stress has been helpful to us, a time when stress has actually improved our performance. That’s why I also talk about how to rethink and optimize stress.

First, we need to acknowledge that we’re stressed instead of denying it. We need to actually welcome stress when we can utilize it. To do that, we have to avoid negative behaviors that arise from stress, like snapping at somebody reactively. We learn to recognize the warning signs so we can tell ourselves, “I’m stressed, and that can impact my behavior.”

I remind people to identify their emotional, psychological, and physiological stress signals so that, when they arise, they can reframe that response. They learn to ask: “What am I stressed about, and how can I use that stress to help me? How else might I address the situation?”

One study you conducted concluded that, in some instances, stress actually improves decision-making.

We’ve all seen cases in the media in which police officers shoot unarmed men, thinking they were armed when in fact, they were only carrying a wallet or something like that. I exposed officers to stress, then engaged them in a computerized shooter exercise to see whether stress made them more likely to make those types of mistakes. I varied the race of the targets because we know that, in the real world, many situations are race-based, and that officers make more errors with Black targets because of stereotypes associating Blacks with danger.

I determined the officers’ stress by measuring cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress; higher cortisol levels suggest that you are experiencing a stress reaction. I found that those with increased cortisol levels made fewer errors — they were more accurate in their shooting decision. Particular amounts of stress make people focused and vigilant, which makes sense. Our stress response evolved so that when we see a lion, we know it’s time to fight or flee. That kind of attentiveness to threats is a good thing.

“Diversity creates uncertainty. To overcome that, we need to give people opportunities to get to know each other better.”

I found that, under stress, officers were more accurate because they were attending to the threat. That tells us that there are certain types of decision-making in which stress can be helpful. If your decision-making is about threat detection, stress might be helpful because it focuses your attention. In situations where you need to see the forest and not the trees, stress might actually be harmful. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The type of stress you’re experiencing can be helpful or harmful, depending on the decision you need to make.

Which makes your research a lot more applicable to boardroom stress than crime-scene stress.

Exactly. In life-threatening situations, you might be intentionally focused and make assumptions, and that’s when your stereotypes kick in. You see a Black target, you’re stressed, and your stereotypes tell you “They’re carrying a gun,” so you shoot. In the exercise, you discern better because you’re more focused, but without fearing for your life.

You conducted another study that yielded surprising results about multitasking. Can you discuss that research and its conclusions?

The common perception is that switching between many tasks leads to distraction, which, of course, can be true. However, multitasking has some benefits. For one, it can prevent you from getting fixated on a wrong or unproductive strategy. When you’re working on a paper or a project or trying to come up with a creative idea, sometimes you get stuck. What our work showed was that multitasking helps you get unstuck.

In the study, we had people switch between two types of creative tasks. For example, we’d ask them to come up with uses for a brick and then come up with uses for a toothpick. We gave them all a set amount of time. One group was instructed to switch tasks at the midpoint. A second group was told to switch constantly, back and forth. A third group was instructed to switch whenever they wanted. What we found was that the second group came up with the most creative uses. That’s because they didn’t get cognitively fixated on an approach that wasn’t working, nor did they keep returning to the same idea over and over.

When you want to get unstuck, it can be helpful to take a break and switch to another task. It has to be something else that isn’t going to take you down a totally wrong path. Don’t go run errands or surf the internet or procrastinate in some other way. Just shift your attention to something that can help you get unstuck.

You also study gender differences. How do men and women respond to stress differently in the workplace?

In general, men and women have similar stress responses. This is evolutionarily based.

However, different things can be more stressful for a man or a woman, based on gender role stereotypes. We have prescriptive stereotypes about what we should be doing, how we should behave as women, how we should behave as men in the workplace. There’s tons of research showing that when women act more dominantly, in a more agentic manner, they can be penalized. Women are expected to be communal and relational, which means that more agentic behaviors, like negotiating, may cause women to feel more anxious about engaging.

“There’s a ton of research indicating that diverse groups can outperform homogenous groups. But that doesn’t happen by itself.”

Delegation is one such behavior. We found that men and women experience delegating differently. In delegation, you are basically telling your subordinate what to do — you’re being dominant. You’re also helping your subordinate grow, so there’s a communal aspect to it as well. However, what we found was that, for women, the dominant aspect loomed larger, and as a result, they were more anxious about delegating. They worry that they might overburden their subordinate, or they feel guilt about giving them extra tasks. As a result, women are less likely than men to delegate. We also found that when you remind women that delegation can help their subordinates grow and develop, women feel less anxious about it.

You’ve done quite a bit of work in the area of workplace diversity as well. How can employers get the most out of promoting diversity?

As a woman of color, I’ve always been in diverse environments — I’ve always been one of few in environments where not very many people look like me. One of the things that you learn and see over time is that diversity can be stressful. Studies show that the top determinant of whom we form personal and professional relationships with is how similar we are.

Diversity creates uncertainty. It can make people uncomfortable and cause stress. To overcome that, we need to give people opportunities to get to know each other better, especially when they’re different from each other. It can be creating teams with people from different backgrounds or creating opportunities outside work to socialize — anything to encourage people not just to gravitate toward people who are similar to them. We can also remind people in diverse environments that a little bit of stress can be helpful. If your heart is pumping because you don’t know the right thing to say or you’re nervous about appearing prejudiced, that’s okay. You learn and grow by having conversations. The important thing is to expand your circle.

That’s the challenge because, as you were saying, people tend to cluster with like people. You have a dominant group who is doing all the hiring and they’re going to more likely hire people who are like them.

Which is counterproductive in business. There’s a ton of research indicating that diverse groups can outperform homogenous groups. But that doesn’t happen by itself. Leadership has to create an overarching goal to allow opportunities across all groups. That’s how you achieve egalitarianism and get the most out of diversity.

The greater the diversity, the greater the variety of ideas and inputs.

Yes, but to do that, you need to create a psychologically safe environment, where new ideas are welcome. You need to make sure people get to know each other and know each other well enough to promote openness.

We think about the business environment as strictly being commerce and transactional, but in fact, it seems like there’s a huge psychological and social component to success in business.

Absolutely. Business is relational. It’s people interacting with people to produce outcomes. The better we understand those social dynamics, the more effective we are in our organizations. It’s pretty simple.

Business is about human connection, about people coordinating with each other. Machines can’t do it all — they can’t be compassionate, they can’t have empathy. There will always be a human component.

Why should a participant who’s considering an Advanced Management Program choose Columbia Business School?

One of the things that we pride ourselves on at Columbia Business School is that we focus on the cutting edge. Participants in the Advanced Management Program and other programs encounter cutting-edge research and learn how it applies to practice.

Modupe Akinola is just one of many leading business scholars who teach in Columbia Business School Executive Education’s Advanced Management Program, a 27-day, 50+ session course sequence designed to deliver learning experiences you can immediately apply in your professional life. Interactive online modules, live teleconference sessions, in-person experiential-learning events, and one-on-one executive coaching sessions, access to a world-class alumni network, and a world-class faculty in general management, corporate strategy, and entrepreneurship all distinguish the Advanced Management Program from other executive learning opportunities. Over 22 weeks, you’ll complete personal assessments, develop a personalized action plan, and formulate strategies to address your most difficult leadership challenges and gain a competitive advantage.

Are you a senior-level executive ready to broaden your perspective and boost your creativity? The Columbia Business School Executive Education Advanced Management Program can help you reach the next level. Apply today.

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