In this increasingly complex world emotions such as empathy, compassion and benevolence are emerging as critical qualities of highly successful people, teams, companies and communities. Even in the highly competitive world of business and selling, those sales people and leaders who are able to incorporate these qualities into their daily work and personal lives are finding greater levels of success. This is coming in the form of better sales results and healthier, more prosperous client relationships as well as better personal health, resilience, and overall job and personal satisfaction.
Not on the usual business checklist of qualities to be proactively developed and mastered, neuropsychologists have demonstrated that emotions such as compassion, empathy, and benevolence can be trained. What’s more, as soft as it may sound, a growing number of companies are buying into the notion that developing these qualities through meditation can alter the brain in ways that drive important organizational outcomes.
So how do you develop these qualities – empathy, compassion and benevolence – and incorporate them into your daily life? And why should you bother?
Leaving behind the energy draining need of ‘striving for perfection and approval’, competition at all costs, and focussing on obtaining status via material possessions and power, all potential hallmarks of a 20th century ‘me’ focused culture, many people are coming to realise that practicing empathy, compassion and benevolence is allowing them to accept themselves as they are which in turn is allowing them to free up energy to accept others too. They are finding that practicing ‘self’ and ‘other’ acceptance is the basis for all healthy and productive relationships – at work and home.
Alongside a growing body of research, and a couple thousand years of anecdotal evidence (see Buddhism, Yoga, Sufism, and other spiritual practices), neuroscientists Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrate that meditation can help with “positivity” training since it stimulates the area of the brain associated with emotions such as empathy or compassion. To verify this, Davidson mapped the brains of employees at a bio-tech company where more than half of the group completed 3 hours of meditation training. After meditating, participants noticed an elevation or boost in their mood and a decrease in anxiety. Davidson was able to vividly show that meditation produced significant increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive characteristics like optimism and resilience, as well as “higher” executive functions as decision-making, judgment, and planning.
When we operate in the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain) we are able to think more clearly, make better decisions, listen more attentively, see other people’s points of view, come up with better ideas to problems and work together more effectively and more efficiently.
By contrast, staying stuck in the amygdale -the primitive, reptilian (hind) part of the brain- where our Flight & Fright response resides, we risk jamming our senses, limiting our thinking, and end up creating personal and work settings revolving around constant fear and distress. It is not to say we should avoid the amygdale at all costs – that is unrealistic too. The Amygdale is an important part of the brain, designed to help us deal with ‘life threatening’ situations which, under normal circumstances, only occur in short bursts. However the 20th century’s ‘Me’ focused culture has inadvertently set up ‘lifestyle threatening’ situations and management-by-fear business cultures leading many people to operate in the amygdale for sustained periods.
Worried about holding on to their possessions, status, and jobs, this striving for self preservation has led to many to experience a sense of entitlement (without responsibility) which, sadly, breeds the opposite of empathy, compassion and benevolence. The pressure of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, and striving for external validation of one’s worthiness is leaving many people suffering from sustained distress – not a condition of general life contentment.
And what’s worse, medical research is confirming that living in a constant or sustained state of fear – flight or fright, is leading to adrenal fatigue, lower immune responses, dramatic increases in heart disease and early onset dementia. In addition to the stark medical news, if we operate from a constant state of fear we see a reduction in feelings of empathy, compassion and benevolence across all walks of life. This can in turn lead to outcomes such as increases in road rage incidents, alcohol and substance abuse, relationship breakdowns, depression and other mental illnesses to name a few.
A recent US study estimate suggests that distress; operating from a place of constant fear, costs companies about $200 billion a year in increased absenteeism, tardiness, and the loss of talented workers. Not good for anyone, any family, business, or community.
What this study also revealed was that practicing meditation can increase job satisfaction and productivity. Rather than coming down hard on employees and sales people pressuring them to produce more or sell more with less with constants threats and fear of job loss, a number of companies are encouraging employees to take up meditation practices. This in turn is reducing distress and increases wellbeing which ironically helps people be more effective and productive. Working from a ‘can do’ approach, more leaders and their teams are finding better pathways to successful outcomes in this complex, busy world and rewiring their brains and their lives to suit.
Some MBA programs are even jumping on the meditation bandwagon as well. At Arizona State University, for example, Meditation in a New York Minute by Mark Thorton is on the required book lists for leadership electives. It also offers a ‘Neuroscience of Leadership’ course in its Business Masters degrees. Their challenge is to move beyond ‘fad’ status. As a practitioner of meditation and yoga for more than 20 years I can attest to the effectiveness however like anything it requires regular practice and attention.
So instead of living in constant fear of achieving our sales budgets, keeping our businesses afloat, and all that goes with it, maybe we could take some time out of our busy days and, at the very least, start to meditate, finding space in for reflection and contemplation – giving our brains and bodies space to be at rest and clear the daily distresses. By practicing meditation we can train our brains to start working in the prefrontal cortex and tap into our creativity and quality decision making, as well as our empathy, compassion and benevolence which clears a pathway thus allowing people to work together and co create, finding better more effective and efficient ways to be successful.
Remember everybody lives by selling something.