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Who's More Stressed? Partners or Associates?

Vivia Chen

October 1, 2012

Statue-AugustusPity the poor, beleaguered partner. It's not such a cushy job these days. I know the pressure to bring in business and keep fickle clients happy is relentless. And if you're the head of the firm, you have to pacify the troops at home too. The further you go up on the pyramid, the more thankless the job gets.

Do you really buy that? I don't. Maybe I'm just a proletarian down deep, but my gut tells me that associates are the ones we should pity. Guess what? I am so right!

According to a four-year research project conducted by Harvard Kennedy School's Decision Science Laboratory, Stanford University, and University of California at San Diego, those in leadership positions have lower stress levels than those in the lower ranks, reports the Harvard Gazette. The reason: Bosses have more control over their work life and underlings don't.

"The conventional wisdom is it is very stressful to be the top dog, the CEO, or the military general,"  Harvard professor Jennifer Lerner told the Harvard Gazette. "Our results indicate that the top dog has less stress as measured by baseline cortisol. That is quite surprising to some people."

Frankly, I'm not sure why anyone should be surprised by this. In a law firm context, at least, associates are expected to be at the beck and call of the partners they work for. I know it's a cliché, but I think it's still true that when partners ask you to jump, the only acceptable response is, "How high?"

The study compared stress indicators (levels of hormone cortisol and self-reported anxiety) of leaders and nonleaders. What explains the reduced cortisol in the ruling class, say the researchers, is "the greater sense of control that comes with higher leadership levels."

Also "significant in creating that sense of control" among the leaders were "the total number of subordinates and authority over subordinates." That seems to indicate that the more people you can boss around, the more control you have, and the better you feel about yourself. Put another way, the boss's sense of control grows in proportion to the underling's forfeiture of control. So the more people you are oppressing, the chipper you'll feel. Hail Caesar!

But, alas, how long you can feel like a Roman emperor depends on how well your empire is faring:

[The researchers] noted that the study primarily tested leaders who are in stable positions and supported by their organizations. Leaders in unstable situations they termed “contested hierarchies” likely have higher stress levels.

Obviously, if you're ruling over a declining empire like Dewey & LeBoeuf, being a leader sucks. But until things crumble, it's still far better to be in the ruling class.

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Art: Emperor Augustus, The Vatican Museum


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I think, partner is more stressed, though it is difficult that define who is more. Here also discuss that leadership is lower stress than lower rank and its came from four years research. Thanks for your post. http://www.goversity.com/

My life as an associate in Biglaw was made hellish by being the "dog" (yes, that's what a partner's preferred associate was called) of a partner whose motto was, "The best way to deal with stress is to inflict it on other people." No, I'm not exaggerating. I heard him offer this explanation to a client.

He had intuitively grasped the results of the study.

This is the exact same result that studies have found in just about every other field of employment in recent decades. It simply proves that it's indeed stressful to "have all the responsibility but none of the authority," be "treated like a mushroom (kept in the dark and being fed ----)," work as a "cog in the machine," and other cliches that express the life of a line worker at any skill level.

I'd point out, though, that stress can result that way just one step below the top in even a huge organization, yet can be avoided just one step from the bottom, depending on the management style of the immediate boss - cold and authoritatiran versus humane and empowering.

Now THAT study sounds to me like one worth conducting.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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