Meditation For MBAs: Train Your Mind, Improve Your Game — Part III

In the first two articles in this series, I outlined the physical and mental benefits of meditation, explaining how the practice will help you better navigate the MBA-application process and become a better leader. I’ve saved perhaps the best for last: the “touchy feely” benefits of meditation, which I contend are more important than you may think. While highly educated, hard-driving business professionals often hold “hard” skills—such as financial modeling, statistics, research, and strategy—in greater esteem than emotionally oriented “soft” skills such as listening, empathizing, and working with conflict, the truth is that EQ (emotional intelligence) competency is highly correlated with professional success at the top.[i] According to USC’s leadership expert Warren Bennis, “In the fields I have studied, emotional intelligence is much more powerful than IQ in determining who emerges as a leader. IQ is a threshold competence. You need it, but it doesn’t make you a star. Emotional Intelligence can.”[ii] Daniel Goleman, who made EQ a household term, has noted, “High IQ makes you a brilliant financial analyst; adding high EQ makes you CEO.”[iii]

If you honestly reflect on your own experience, I bet you’ll find this to be true. What has really made the difference when you’ve tried to achieve great things in concert with and through other people? Probably not your pivot-table expertise, turbo macros, or elegant coding skills! And recruiters concur. “Interpersonal communication and other so-called soft skills are what corporate recruiters crave most but find most elusive in M.B.A. graduates,” says the Wall Street Journal in a recent article. “The major business schools produce graduates with analytical horsepower and solid command of the basics—finance, marketing and strategy. But soft skills such as communication, leadership and a team mentality sometimes receive cursory treatment.”

According to Peter Salovey of Yale University and John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire, who first coined the term “emotional intelligence,” EQ “involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” Goleman has outlined five distinct EQ competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. In studying the research on meditation performed in the last decade in particular, I see substantial evidence that this form of mind training can rewire the brain in ways that can help develop these competencies. Thanks to what scientists refer to as “neuroplasticity,” our brains can change well beyond childhood; we can actually modify the “internal hardware” we use to interact with our world. In this article, I’ll be highlighting research related to meditation’s effects on self-awareness, emotional regulation and the generation of positive emotions, conflict management, and empathy.

What Is Going on in Here?

Self-awareness is the foundation of EQ as it allows us to clearly see what we are feeling, thinking, and doing. Scientists such as Harvard’s Sara Lazar have found that structures of the brain related to self-awareness such as the insula are thicker (and therefore more functional) in long-term meditation practitioners, and participants in a number of studies have reported greater post-study self-awareness after engaging in meditation training. Rather than being on automatic pilot, when we’re awake to what’s going on inside and outside us, we have the chance to slow things down and make choices about how we respond to our circumstances. Responding skillfully is way more likely if we can regulate our emotions. When we’re able to self-regulate, we can take ourselves from a highly activated emotional state (very angry, very sad, or very frightened, and very likely to do something rash and ill considered) back to a state of emotional equilibrium and mental objectivity, perhaps in a matter of minutes or hours rather than in a matter of hours or days or weeks. As we develop greater emotional self-mastery, we’re better able to handle the inevitable bumps in our relationships, and we have greater resilience because it’s easier to bounce back from emotionally triggering setbacks. The research suggests that meditation strengthens the capacity to self-regulate.

Studying the effects of observing and labeling thoughts and feelings (part of the meditation instructions I provided in the second article in this series), UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues have found that this practice promotes more neural connections between our more highly developed prefrontal cortex (executive brain functions) and more primitive areas of our brain that are tied to emotional arousal and the survival instinct, the amygdala in particular. The result: the dampening of the limbic region of the brain, which allows us to chill more easily and quickly. In a 2009 study, researchers found that compared to a non-meditating control group, participants in a eight-week MBSR training saw a decrease in grey-matter density (and therefore function) of their amygdala. Finally, in a University of Oregon study performed in 2010, scientists tracked the brain activity of those involved in a meditation training program vs. those doing relaxation practices; the former group showed significantly more brain activity in the region of the brain that has to do with regulating conflict. Imagine what it would be like to have a disagreement with someone and yet find it easier to remain calm, objective, and engaged with him or her. This is something you can learn to do.

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