Nice companies, like their leaders, can finish first

Posted April 22nd, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

In my article in The Financial Post, “Why Nice Guys Can Finish First in Business,” I said ““our culture for some time has embraced the notion that the strongest, toughest and most aggressive leaders get the job done and are more desirable, than “likeable,” or humble people who are viewed to be weak.” Despite the fact that this stereotype continues to be embraced by many and projected in the media, it doesn’t reflect changing times or recent psychological and business research.

In decades past, there was saying that “nice guys finish last,” which reflected the belier that if you wanted to be really successful land make it to the top, you have to be hard-nosed, tough on people and even ruthless if necessary. An aggressive aura about business was projected, complete with the language of the battlefield and competitive professional sports. The paradigm was win-lose.

The era of the command and control, charismatic leaders such as Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca, and projected in the extreme in movies by the character Gordon Gecko, may be over. In an era of increasing transparency and younger, more independent-minded, values driven workers, it no longer pays to be a jerk to employees, customers, vendors or competitors.

David Rand, of Harvard’s Department of Psychology, is lead author of a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “What it boils down to is you’d better be a nice guy, or else you’re going to get cut off.” University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, argues the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. He contends “that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated, but those who behave generously toward others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

Research by Jon Bohlmann and Rob Handfield of North Carolina State University, Tianjao Qiu of California State university, William Qualls and Deborah Rupp of the University Illinois, published in The Journal of Product Innovation Management shows that project managers got much better performance from their team members when they treated them with honesty, kindness and respect. Bohlmann explains “if you think you are being treated well, you are going to work well with others on your team.”

Peter Shankman, author of Nice Companies Finish Fist: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over And Collaboration Is In, outlines how employee dissatisfaction with their leaders is rampant and growing in organizations, largely because those leaders are “jerks” and abusive, and often, their companies reflect their leadership style.

Shankman profiles famously nice executives, entrepreneurs and companies that are setting the standard of success in our collaborative world, citing examples such as Jet Blue and Don Needleman, Zappos and Tony Hseigh, American Express and Ken Chenault and the whole team at Patagonia.

Shankman says companies should commit themselves to “enlightened self-interest,” which requires more than just the bottom line of financial results. Rather, they should have an equal focus on employee and customer welfare and doing something for the greater good.

Increasingly, businesses today are judged not just on their products and services, but on their values, and ethics—their corporate citizenship. In the past, marketing was largely about the business deciding who their customers would be, crafting a message that was often manipulative to create demand and converting the public to need their products or services. Those days are passing and businesses are now scrambling to find relevance in a world of social media ratings.

The power of social media to affect business began back in 2002 when Evan Williams, the inventor of Twitter, gave the population the freedom to post opinions, references and ratings on the web. Since then, a plethora of social networks, commentary, ratings and review sites have spread quickly.

Dave Kerpen and Theresa Braun and Valerie Pitchard, authors of Likeable Business: Why Today’s Consumers Demand More and How Leaders Can Deliver, argue “one thing is guaranteed in today’s hyper connected society: If your business isn’t likeable, it will fail.” They outline 11 strategies for organizations to become likeable and successful, including such things as transparency, authenticity and gratitude.

In their book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, authors Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers argue that a significant part of the growing collaborative economy is the concept of “reputation bank accounts,” that will measure and rank a company’s contributions to society. Firms which have high reputations will fare better than those with negative reviews and little in the bank.

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, predicts the next development in business will be C to C or peer-to-peer firms, which focus on helping people with whatever their needs may be, based on the web platform.

The Parnassus Workplace Fund, started by Jerome Dodson in 2005, invests only in companies that have built solid reputations for treating employees with profound respect and supporting them through ongoing training and personal development and provides some meaningful form of profit sharing, health care and retirement benefits The Parnassus Workplace Fund has achieved annual returns just over 9.6%, and outperformed the S&P Index.

There are clear signs that the nice guys and nice companies can indeed finish first.

The mind-body connection and emotions

Posted April 21st, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

New research has shown that the way our minds react to and process emotions such as fear can vary according to what is happening in other parts of our bodies.

In two different presentations on April 8 at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience (BNA2013) in London, researchers have shown for the first time that the heart’s cycle affects the way we process fear, and that a part of the brain that responds to stimuli, such as touch, felt by other parts of the body also plays a role.

Dr Sarah Garfinkel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (Brighton, UK), told a news briefing: “Cognitive neuroscience strives to understand how biological processes interact to create and influence the conscious mind. While neural activity in the brain is typically the focus of research, there is a growing appreciation that other bodily organs interact with brain function to shape and influence our perceptions, cognitions and emotions.

“We demonstrate for the first time that the way in which we process fear is different dependent on when we see fearful images in relation to our heart.”

Dr Garfinkel and her colleagues hooked up 20 healthy volunteers to heart monitors, which were linked to computers. Images of fearful faces were shown on the computers and the electrocardiography (ECG) monitors were able to communicate with the computers in order to time the presentation of the faces with specific points in the heart’s cycle.

“Our results show that if we see a fearful face during systole (when the heart is pumping) then we judge this fearful face as more intense than if we see the very same fearful face during diastole (when the heart is relaxed). To look at neural activity underlying this effect, we performed this experiment in an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] scanner and demonstrated that a part of the brain called the amygdala influences how our heart changes our perception of fear.

“From previous research, we know that if we present images very fast then we have trouble detecting them, but if an image is particularly emotional then it can ‘pop’ out and be seen. In a second experiment, we exploited our cardiac effect on emotion to show that our conscious experience is affected by our heart. We demonstrated that fearful faces are better detected at systole (when they are perceived as more fearful), relative to diastole. Thus our hearts can also affect what we see and what we don’t see — and can guide whether we see fear.

“Lastly, we have demonstrated that the degree to which our hearts can change the way we see and process fear is influenced by how anxious we are. The anxiety level of our individual subjects altered the extent their hearts could change the way they perceived emotional faces and also altered neural circuitry underlying heart modulation of emotion.”

Dr Garfinkel says that her findings might have the potential to help people who suffer from anxiety or other conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We have identified an important mechanism by which the heart and brain ‘speak’ to each other to change our emotions and reduce fear. We hope to explore the therapeutic implications in people with high anxiety. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and are very prevalent in the UK and elsewhere. We hope that by increasing our understanding about how fear is processed and ways that it could be reduced, we may be able to develop more successful treatments for these people, and also for those, such as war veterans, who may be suffering from PTSD.

“In addition, there is a growing appreciation about how different forms of meditation can have therapeutic consequences. Work that integrates body, brain and mind to understand changes in emotion can help us understand how meditation and mindfulness practices can have calming effects.”

In a second presentation, Dr Alejandra Sel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at City University (London, UK), investigated a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex — the area that perceives bodily sensations, such as touch, pain, body temperature and the perception of the body’s place in space, and which is activated when we observe emotional expressions in the faces of other people.

“In order to understand other’s people emotions we need to experience the same observed emotions in our body. Specifically, observing an emotional face, as opposed to a neutral face, is associated with an increased activity in the somatosensory cortex as if we were expressing and experiencing our own emotions. It is also known that people with damage to the somatosensory cortex find it difficult to recognise emotion in other people’s faces,” Dr Sel told the news briefing.

However, until now, it has not been clear whether activity in the somatosensory cortex was simply a by-product of the way we process visual information, or whether it reacts independently to emotions expressed in other people’s faces, actively contributing to how we perceive emotions in others.

In order to discover whether the somatosensory cortex contributes to the processing of emotion independently of any visual processes, Dr Sel and her colleagues tested two situations on volunteers. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain response to images, they showed participants either a face showing fear (emotional) or a neutral face. Secondly, they combined the showing of the face with a small tap to an index finger or the left cheek immediately afterwards.

Dr Sel said: “By tapping someone’s cheek or finger you can modify the ‘resting state’ of the somatosensory cortex inducing changes in brain electrical activity in this area. These changes are measureable and observable with EEG and this enables us to pinpoint the brain activity that is specifically related to the somatosensory cortex and its reaction to external stimuli.

“If the ‘resting state’ of the somatosensory cortex when a fearful face is shown has greater electrical activity than when a neutral face is shown, the changes in the activity of the somatosensory cortex induced by the taps and measured by EEG also will be greater when observing fearful as opposed to neutral faces.

“We subtracted results of the first situation (face only) from the second situation (face and tap), and compared changes in the activity related with the tap in the somatosensory cortex when seeing emotional faces versus neutral faces. This way, we could observe responses of the somatosensory cortex to emotional faces independently of visual processes,” she explained.

The researchers found that there was enhanced activity in the somatosensory cortex in response to fearful faces in comparison to neutral faces, independent of any visual processes. Importantly, this activity was focused in the primary and secondary somatosensory areas; the primary area receives sensory information directly from the body, while the secondary area combines sensory information from the body with information related to body movement and other information, such as memories of previous, sensitive experiences.

“Our experimental approach allows us to isolate and show for the first time (as far as we are aware) changes in somatosensory activity when seeing emotional faces after taking away all visual information in the brain. We have shown the crucial role of the somatosensory cortex in the way our minds and bodies perceive human emotions. These findings can serve as starting point for developing interventions tailored for people with problems in recognising other’s emotions, such as autistic children,” said Dr Sel.

The researchers now plan to investigate whether they get similar results when people are shown faces with other expressions such as happy or angry, and whether the timing of the physical stimulus, the tap to the finger or cheek, makes any difference. In this experiment, the tap occurred 105 milliseconds after a face was shown, and Dr Sel wonders about the effect of a longer time interval.

Is Gen Y becoming the new “Lost Generation?”

Posted April 15th, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

The “Lost Generation,” a term thought to be coined by Gertrude Stein, was the generation that came of age during WWI, and referred to young people whose prospects in life looked dim. The term was also used to refer to the generation of unemployed youth in the Great Depression. If that term can be applicable to today’s Generation Y, it’s in reference to their high aspirations yet what some would say are their dismal economic prospects. At the same time, it’s clear Gen Y has a very difficult set of values for work and life in general, compared to the Baby Boomers.

Let’s take a look at the critical social commentary about Gen Y.

Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz, writing in The New York Times, argue “sometime in the past 30 years, someone has hit the brakes and Americans—particularly young Americans—have become risk-aversive and sedentary.”

University of New Hampshire management professor Paul Harvey concluded from his research that Gen Y is characterized by a “very inflated sense of self” that leads to “unrealistic expectations” and “chronic disappointment.” This view was echoed by a study by Stacy Campbell of Kennesaw State University who says that when it comes to work, Gen Y wants high salaries and lots of leisure time.

In 2008, the renowned TV news program, 60 Minutes ran a story about Gen Y  in the workplace described millennials as cynical, unaccustomed to hard work and having fragile egos because their childhoods filled with trophies and adulation didn’t prepare them for the cold realities of work.

Bruce Tulgan, the founder of Rainmaker Thinking and an expert on Generation Y, says that “they are a pampered and nurtured generation, being both high performance and high maintenance, with a very high sense of self-worth. Tulgan calls themGeneration X on steroids.”

Robin Marantz Henig observed in The New York Times Magazine that Gen Y has pushed back each of the five milestones of adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children.

We know from many studies and experts that Gen Y has grown up naturally collaborative, talented and open-minded, flexible and they thrive on social media, all characteristics well suited to the new economy. Gen Y demands only that the workplace reflect their values–personal growth; work that is meaningful and family first. The 2006 Cone Millennial Case Study concluded that a large majority of Gen Y want to work for companies that care about and contribute to society, and would refuse to work for an irresponsible company.

Gen Y sees what is known as the American Dream or middle class dream as less about money and more about living a fulfilling, meaningful life. When asked in the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream what was more important to them, 33% said “close family and friends,” compared to only 23% who said “having a roof over your head.”

In an article in the Bloomberg News, Elliot Blair Smith contends “Generation Y professionals entering the U.S. workforce are finding careers that were once gateways to high pay and upwardly mobile lives turning into detours and dead ends.” Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University professor and senior research fellow argues “This generation will be on the lower path of income for probably all of their life—and at least the next 10 years.” Michael Greenstone, who was the Chief Economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisors in 2009-10 says the shift to a downwardly mobile society may be lasting.

According to The Wall Street Journal, almost 300,000 Americans with college degrees were working in minimum wage jobs, which constitutes 70% more than 10 years ago.  Nearly 50% of the college graduate in the class of 2010 are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Recently McDonalds issued a recruitment advertisement asking for applicants to have college degrees.

No group in America has been hit harder during recent tough economic times than young adults. Millions of them are graduating from college with virtually no money, lots of debt and very dim employment prospects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, the national rate of unemployment for Americans 25 and younger is almost 19%. According to the Pew Research center, approximately 37% of the Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have either been unemployed or underemployed at some point during the recession. The Pew Center also reported that only 61% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are covered by some kind of health plan.

A poll for Sun Life Financial Canada found 90% of people aged 18-24 reported feeling excessive stress because of economic instability and underemployment.

So a couple of things are clear. First, Gen Y has a significantly different attitude toward work and life in general than the current dominant Baby Boom generation; and second, the current ongoing difficult economic times are placing the economic and social welfare of Gen Y in jeopardy, something that is not of their doing. We can only hope Gen Y will not be recorded in history as another “Lost Generation.”























Meditation physically alters your brain for positive effects

Posted April 2nd, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

A number of recent significant studies have shown that regular meditation physically alters the brains of participants, and the effect lasts long after meditation periods.

A new study has found that participating in an 8-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on how the brain functions even when someone is not actively meditating. In their report in the November issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and several other research centers also found differences in those effects based on the specific type of meditation practiced.

“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala — a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion — to images with emotional content,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, PhD, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”

Several previous studies have supported the hypothesis that meditation training improves practitioners’ emotional regulation. While neuroimaging studies have found that meditation training appeared to decrease activation of the amygdala — a structure at the base of the brain that is known to have a role in processing memory and emotion — those changes were only observed while study participants were meditating. The current study was designed to test the hypothesis that meditation training could also produce a generalized reduction in amygdala response to emotional stimuli, measurable by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Participants had enrolled in a larger investigation into the effects of two forms of meditation, based at Emory University in Atlanta. Healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in 8-week courses in either mindful attention meditation — the most commonly studied form that focuses on developing attention and awareness of breathing, thoughts and emotions — and compassion meditation, a less-studied form that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others. A control group participated in an 8-week health education course.

Within three weeks before beginning and three weeks after completing the training, 12 participants from each group traveled to Boston for fMRI brain imaging at the Martinos Center’s state-of-the-art imaging facilities. Brain scans were performed as the volunteers viewed a series of 216 different images — 108 per session — of people in situations with either positive, negative or neutral emotional content. Meditation was not mentioned in pre-imaging instructions to participants, and investigators confirmed afterwards that the volunteers had not meditated while in the scanner. Participants also completed assessments of symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the training programs.

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images. But among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images — all of which depicted some form of human suffering. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.

“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explains. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”

Scientists have mostly focused on the benefits of meditation for the brain and the body, but a recent study by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, takes a look at what impacts meditation has on interpersonal harmony and compassion.

Several religious traditions have suggested that mediation does just that, but there has been no scientific proof — until now.

In this study, a team of researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University examined the effects meditation would have on compassion and virtuous behavior, and the results were fascinating.

This study — funded by the Mind and Life Institute — invited participants to complete eight-week trainings in two types of meditation. After the sessions, they were put to the test.

Sitting in a staged waiting room with three chairs were two actors. With one empty chair left, the participant sat down and waited to be called. Another actor using crutches and appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As she did, the actors in the chair would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book.

The question DeSteno and Paul Condon — a graduate student in DeSteno’s lab who led the study — and their team wanted to answer was whether the subjects who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of the person in pain, even in the face of everyone else ignoring her. “We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological wellbeing,” said Condon. “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.”

Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people acted to help. But among the participants who were in the meditation sessions “we were able to boost that up to 50 percent,” said DeSteno. This result was true for both meditation groups thereby showing the effect to be consistent across different forms of meditation. “The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous — to help another who was suffering — even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said, “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?'”

These results appear to prove what the Buddhist theologians have long believed — that meditation is supposed to lead you to experience more compassion and love for all sentient beings. But even for non-Buddhists, the findings offer scientific proof for meditation techniques to alter the calculus of the moral mind.

Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.

Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues, have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (“folding” of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster) than people who do not meditate. Further, a direct correlation was found between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years, possibly providing further proof of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt to environmental changes.

The article appears in the online edition of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of neural tissue. Among other functions, it plays a key role in memory, attention, thought and consciousness. Gyrification or cortical folding is the process by which the surface of the brain undergoes changes to create narrow furrows and folds called sulci and gyri. Their formation may promote and enhance neural processing. Presumably then, the more folding that occurs, the better the brain is at processing information, making decisions, forming memories and so forth.

“Rather than just comparing meditators and non-meditators, we wanted to see if there is a link between the amount of meditation practice and the extent of brain alteration,” said Luders. “That is, correlating the number of years of meditation with the degree of folding.”

Of the 49 recruited subjects, the researchers took MRI scans of 23 meditators and compared them to 16 control subjects matched for age, handedness and sex. (Ten participants dropped out.) The scans for the controls were obtained from an existing MRI database, while the meditators were recruited from various meditation venues. The meditators had practiced their craft on average for 20 years using a variety of meditation types — Samatha, Vipassana, Zen and more. The researchers applied a well-established and automated whole-brain approach to measure cortical gyrification at thousands of points across the surface of the brain.

They found pronounced group differences (heightened levels of gyrification in active meditation practitioners) across a wide swatch of the cortex, including the left precentral gyrus, the left and right anterior dorsal insula, the right fusiform gyrus and the right cuneus.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was the positive correlation between the number of meditation years and the amount of insular gyrification.

“The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration,” said Luders. “Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.”

While Luders cautions that genetic and other environmental factors could have contributed to the effects the researchers observed, still, “The positive correlation between gyrification and the number of practice years supports the idea that meditation enhances regional gyrification.”

Two years ago, researchers at UCLA found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. This suggested that meditation may indeed be good for all of us since, alas, our brains shrink naturally with age.

Now, a follow-up study suggests that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. Having stronger connections influences the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals in the brain. And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas.

Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues used a type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, a relatively new imaging mode that provides insights into the structural connectivity of the brain. They found that the differences between meditators and controls are not confined to a particular core region of the brain but involve large-scale networks that include the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and the anterior corpus callosum, as well as limbic structures and the brain stem.

The study appears in the current online edition of the journal NeuroImage.

“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” Luders said. “We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.”

The study consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects, who were matched by age and sex. The meditation and the control group each consisted of 11 men and 16 women. The number of years of meditation practice ranged from 5 to 46; self-reported meditation styles included Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen, styles that were practiced by about 55 percent of the meditators, either exclusively or in combination with other styles.

Results showed pronounced structural connectivity in meditators throughout the entire brain’s pathways. The greatest differences between the two groups were seen within the corticospinal tract (a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord); the superior longitudinal fasciculus (long bi-directional bundles of neurons connecting the front and the back of the cerebrum); and the uncinate fasciculus (white matter that connects parts of the limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, with the frontal cortex).

“It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level,” said Luders, herself a meditator.

As a consequence, she said, the robustness of fiber connections in meditators may increase and possibly lead to the macroscopic effects seen by DTI.

“Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction,” Luders said. “That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.”

But there is a “but.” While it is tempting to assume that the differences between the two groups constitute actual meditation-induced effects, there is still the unanswered question of nature versus nurture.

“It’s possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with,” Luders said. “For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.”

Still, she said, “Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Collecting evidence that active, frequent and regular meditation practices cause alterations of white-matter fiber tracts that are profound and sustainable may become relevant for patient populations suffering from axonal demyelination and white-matter atrophy.”

Experienced Zen meditators can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than novices, according to a new brain imaging study.

After being interrupted by a word-recognition task, experienced meditators’ brains returned faster to their pre-interruption condition, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine found.

Giuseppe Pagnoni, PhD, Emory assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and co-workers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine changes in blood flow in the brain when people meditating were interrupted by stimuli designed to mimic the appearance of spontaneous thoughts.

The study compared 12 people from the Atlanta area with more than three years of daily practice in Zen meditation with 12 others who had never practiced meditation.

While having their brains scanned, the subjects were asked to focus on their breathing. Every once in a while, they had to distinguish a real word from a nonsense word presented at random intervals on a computer screen and, having done that, promptly “let go” of the just processed stimulus by refocusing on their breath.

The authors found that differences in brain activity between experienced meditators and novices after interruption could be seen in a set of areas often referred to as the “default mode network.” Previous studies have linked the default mode network with the occurrence of spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering during wakeful rest.

After interruption, experienced meditators were able to bring activity in most regions of the default network back to baseline faster than non-meditators. This effect was especially prominent in the angular gyrus, a region important for processing language.

“This suggests that the regular practice of meditation may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts. This skill could be important in conditions such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depression, characterized by excessive rumination or an abnormal production of task-unrelated thoughts,” Pagnoni says.

What are the most important things great leaders do?

Posted April 2nd, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

As a CEO coach I’m often asked by new leaders recently promoted how they should spend their time. While you’d think they would already know the answer, there are different views among management experts and leaders themselves. A clear picture does emerge however, that many leaders are spending time focusing on the wrong things.

Many senior leaders report that they spend the majority of their time in meetings with direct reports, dealing with employee performance problems and analyzing the organization’s performance data, particularly financial data. And they are often behind closed doors, with limited accessabililty.

Most new senior leaders adopt a leadership style based either on watching and imitating a role model or repeating the behaviors that may have served them well in previous, lower-level management positions. The problem is, as renowned CEO coach and management expert Martin Goldsmith has argued in his book, “what got here, won’t get you there.”

John P. Kotter, a foremost management guru, conducted research into the daily work life of effective leaders. He concluded that the most effectives leaders did not spend the majority of time in long scheduled meetings, but rather in many brief and opportunistic spontaneous meetings , often informal in nature, to continually gauge the “temperature” and feeling of what was happening. Kotter also found that highly successful senior leaders rely on indirect influence with employees, compared to middle managers, who rely more on the authority of their position to effect control and change.

What about recruiting and selecting eaders? Kotter found that organizations would be better at developing their own leaders rather than spending money on executive recruiters. The track record of leaders developed from within the organization is much better than those hired from without. There is conventional wisdom that organizations should hire the “best and brightest” from the market place. Yet, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his article in The New Yorker, “The Talent Myth, Are Smart People Overrated?” this practice is questionable at best.

Peter Senge, writing in the Leader To Leader Journal, argues the best leaders spend their time building learning organizations and distributed leadership: “Executive leaders can change their own ways of thinking and interacting, and thereby become a persuasive role mode. They can and must develop strategies for creating an environment in which people are open to new ideas, response to change, and eage to develop new skills and capabilities.”

Several studies have shown, and it has been validated by my experience that highly successful and inspirational leaders spend  a majority (up to 75%) of their time developing their organizational culture. So what would they be doing? Here’s a summary of the most important behaviors. They spend a lot of time and energy:

  • In direct conversations with their employees (and their customers) and not just their direct reports (usually other executives), so they can get a present-time and unfiltered view of what is happening inside and outside of the organization;
  • Developing talent in their organizations, particularly their leadership team. This includes coaching others and providing support and resources and celebrating successes rather than criticizing and judging;
  • Attend other team meetings as an observer of team functioning and the leadership behaviors of others;
  • Developing and reinforcing the organization’s cultural values, purposes and long-term strategies (as opposed to short-term wins);
  • Observing, listening and reflecting, rather than talking, convincing and needing to be in the spotlight.

The role of senior leaders is critical to organizational success. How those leaders spend their time is one measure to predict their success and ultimately that of their organizations.

How struggles make for better leaders

Posted April 2nd, 2013 in Articles, Blogs by admin

We’ve often heard the expression “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” An extension of this idea is that failure and obstacles are good things. Yet this thinking for the general populace doesn’t seem to apply to leaders.

When these concepts are applied to leadership it can take the form of a career requirement. Steven Snyder, author of Leadership and The Art of The Struggle, argues “struggle and leadership are intertwined…Great leaders use failure as a wake up call.”

Yet, our culture, and the media that propels it, favors promoting the image of a leader who is faultless, has made no mistakes and has a Teflon-like movie-star image. As Bill George argues, we quickly turn away from leaders who have made mistakes and the media tries to bury them.

Despite the substantial amount of psychological research and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates how failure and adversity can be of great benefit to leaders, we continue to insist on perfection.

Snyder argues that great leaders don’t use failure as a reason to blame others, don’t avoid responsibility or become victims, but rather, “seek  out the counsel of a mentor and/or turn their attention inward for reflection and introspection.” He advances the following principles of his “Struggle Lens” that can guide leaders:

  • Leadership is a struggle that provides a gateway to learning and growth;
  • All human beings have flaws, including leaders;
  • While accomplishing  goals  is important, human values must drive leaders;
  • Leaders must accept the world as it is, not as they would like it to be, while still personally striving to make the world better.

Drawing on his experience of working with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft, and his knowledge of leaders in companies such as Apple Target and General Mills, Snyder proposes a framework for leaders to thrive in struggle: become grounded; explore new pathways and deepen adaptive strategy.

My experience in coachinghigh-level executives has led me to conclude that far too many of them suffer from either a narcissistic-like desire to be perfect, and always right and a reticence to admit mistakes or even see them as a necessary part of being a good leader. In many ways our culture, with its demand and expectation for perfect leaders has been responsible for recruiting and promoting these kinds of leaders, who in the end don’t serve their organizations, or society well.

Snyder’s book makes a significant contribution to realizing that struggles and failures make the best leaders.