RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Companies like Google, General Mills and insurance giant Aetna are teaching yoga and meditation in the workplace to help combat stress. Now some business schools are teaching aspiring MBAs the techniques, as well. Reporter Lisa Napoli visited one school in Southern California offering mindfulness as a management skill.
LISA NAPOLI, BYLINE: It's the first day of the new semester at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California. Students are making their way to the classrooms, where they'll study finance, economics and accounting.
JEREMY HUNTER: Make sure you're comfortable.
NAPOLI: But in room 26, there isn't a spreadsheet in sight.
HUNTER: And then slowly start to bring your mind into the here and now.
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NAPOLI: Over the next few months, Professor Jeremy Hunter will ask students to look inward. He'll teach them how to track their emotions and how to pay better attention, all by learning how to meditate.
HUNTER: It's not new age woo-woo. It's not spirituality. It's not a therapist's couch.
NAPOLI: Hunter says you can't manage other people without first understanding how to manage yourself.
HUNTER: How present you are, how able you are to manage your own emotional states and be able to effectively manage oftentimes very complex and nuanced relationships is, you know, essential to getting work done these days.
NAPOLI: In class, Hunter shares a growing body of scientific research that shows it's possible to fine-tune the brain's performance. These concepts are also being taught at other business schools, like Harvard and the University of Nebraska.
But not everyone is sold on the benefits of meditation. Bill Taber decided to earn his executive MBA a few years ago after being promoted into management at his job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He realized his PhD in mathematics didn't equip him for leading a team, but he didn't see what slowing down and sitting quietly had to do with it.
BILL TABER: The first time, it was, oh, so I'm just going to sit and pay attention to my breathing. This is it? OK. And for quite a while, it seemed like, well, this is a waste of 10 or 20 minutes. I'm not doing anything.
NAPOLI: But as the course continued, Taber changed his mind.
TABER: Now, when I can get that 10 or 20 minutes, it's actually 10 or 20 minutes I, you know, treasure, because I'm not doing anything. I'm just turning inward and paying attention to myself, experiencing what's going on in the body and what that tells me. We don't learn this in our normal education.
NAPOLI: Mindfulness as a management technique wasn't on the syllabus back when Taber was first going to school over 30 years ago. Recent college graduate and MBA student Cameron Kane is more naturally interested in the idea.
CAMERON KANE: People get caught up in meeting the, you know, you've got to get this much revenue, got to meet this profit margin. If people don't have a sense of their own self or the ethics that they need to make a business run or work properly, then eventually it's going to catch up with you, i.e. Bernie Madoff. I mean, the list goes on.
HUNTER: Thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, just let them pass through, like clouds in the sky.
NAPOLI: Professor Hunter says just because younger students today may be inclined toward meditation doesn't make it any easier.
HUNTER: These exercises are difficult. They're emotionally demanding. You have to be able to really honestly look at yourself in a very unvarnished way.
NAPOLI: And to look at habits that make it hard to focus and get work done, like the subject of next week's class: the perils of multi-tasking.
For NPR News, I'm Lisa Napoli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.