BLOG: Leadership Insights

Get Email Updates

Are We All Equal in the Face of Pressure? — A Conversation with David Rock (Video)

December 9, 2011

In this fourth and final portion of our Q&A session with neuroleadership expert David Rock, the author explores the subtle differences between men and women in the face of pressure and reaffirms the challenges common to all at the top. This Q& A followed Rock’s October 3rd leadership broadcast on Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

Rich Rosier for Linkage: Are there any observed differences in the SCARF model between women and men?

David Rock: Well, I mentioned the variation in the brain and there is massive neural diversity.  I think the difference between two female brains, even if they sort of look similar, is more important than the difference between a female and a male brain.  There is such strong individual variation in the brain.  But everyone loves to know about the male and female brain, it is obviously a great topic.

We are clearly different.  I am not saying we are not different–but from a SCARF perspective, women are a little bit more focused on relatedness as a general rule, not universally, but they are much more conscious of thinking about people and thinking about how people connect.  If you give a woman and a man the same task, what you will see is quite a lot of activity in the woman’s brain.  If a woman is looking at a glass and answering the question, “Is it half full or half empty?” the woman’s brain will have more connections across the brain and more activation overall, and she will probably think about that question from multiple angles.  The man’s brain, not much going on comparatively.

Now you can take that two ways.  Depending on who you are of course, you can say, “Well, the woman is really thinking,” or you can say, “Well, the man is actually being efficient,” depending on your perspective.  But generally, women are making connections and seeing how things relate and that kind of thing a little bit more.

I have spoken to a room full of women on the same day as a room full of men, and they are just as Status-driven.  So, I don’t see so much of a difference there.   There is a little bit of a difference around Certainty in that men, with a different hormone balance, often require higher levels of uncertainty to actually get to the level of peak performance.  So a lot of men actually like pressure and stress before they will hit their peak performance level.  So we need just the right amount of dopamine and norepinephrine. For men, quite often, that is quite a higher level than women.

So women generally tend to be better at thinking ahead and planning and organizing, and men quite often will be better under pressure.  It is not a universal rule, but averaged across people, there is a slight variation there.  So certainly some differences in Certainty and Relatedness are showing up. Otherwise, those are the main issues.


There have been some studies that show that as executives, managers, and leaders climb the ranks and the stress adds, there is more inclination towards abusing alcohol or drugs or other escape mechanisms to get rid of the stress. 

By men or women?

Both.  Is your research basically saying those Healthy Mind Platter techniques are a way to get to the same goal, which is to clear the mind but not use outside stimulants to do it?

Yes.  The pressure and the stress at high levels can be really intense.  You have to make a decision whether to fire a thousand people, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand and choose who those people are, or instead trust that things will be okay.  I mean, that is a really tough decision. There is a lot going on in your brain to make that decision.  And unless you have very good resiliency, it can really send you crazy.

The thing, with the Healthy Mind Platter, is keeping your allostatic load.  Allostatic load is a measure of your kind of ambient threat response measured by cortisol and immune function things.  So, the idea is doing things that keep your overall allostatic load low by doing things that reverse the harmful impact of stress–like connecting with people on a real level.  When you connect in a really safe way with people that you care about and who care about you, you get this lovely reversal of the stress response.  So you will actually get the healing response kicking in, which reverses the impact of stress.  But if you are lonely at the top, don’t have a social network and don’t have people to talk to, you may not have the outlet to do that.

The idea of the Healthy Mind Platter, especially for high-performing people and people under pressure is to reduce the allostatic load and make the brain quieter for reflection.

I was talking to Bill George awhile back about this and he asked me the question, why do a lot of CEOs fail when they get in the job?  And my answer is that they have such a big increase in threat response overall that they can only do what they have always done without having to think, and they literally loose the ability to think and make decisions in the way that they have been able to before.  Moderate to high threat shuts down pre-frontal function in such an intense way and people actually do not know that it is happening.  They think they are being focused, but actually it shuts down your ability to process in very surprising ways.

David, I want to thank you so much.  Unfortunately we are out of time. We really appreciate the insights that you have given us.  Thanks again for joining us today.  For Linkage, I’m Rich Rosier and goodbye for now.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

Posted In


Enrich Your inbox

with timely, relevant leadership insights

Join more than 15,000 others and subscribe to Linkage Leadership Insights: your resource for leadership development-related topics that matter to you, from the advancement of women leaders to diversity and inclusion and purposeful leadership. Plus, get all the latest Linkage news delivered to your inbox.

Related Posts

All Insights

Start Your Journey

Speak with a Linkage expert today