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How to boost staff performance and wellbeing

The disciplines of neuroscience and mindfulness converge in Google’s latest leadership program, which claims to enhance a participant’s self-awareness, emotional intelligence and leadership skills.

Anyone who has worked in performance management knows how important certain character traits and skills are to effective leadership, innovation, collaboration and even wellbeing. But can these traits be learned? Is it possible to not just boost the culture of a workplace but the performance and wellbeing of each employee within it? A new leadership program by Google suggests that it is.

The Search Inside Yourself (SIY) program was developed alongside leading neuroscientists, with the idea that through cognitive training and mindfulness techniques you can expand leadership capacity, improve performance and collaboration and enhance wellbeing, emotional intelligence and resilience. Starting as a bestselling book and quickly becoming Google’s most popular internal training program, SIY has now hit Australian shores. We speak to recently certified SIY teacher Craig Davis about what the program entails and why companies are lining up to send their employees.

The program focuses on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. These words are bandied around a lot but what do they mean within the context of the program?

The great thing about the program is that it was developed by Google so it introduced a bunch of very systems-thinking, left-brain oriented people to these tenets. Most of us instinctively and intellectually understand our responses to the world, to a certain extent, but emotional intelligence and mindfulness are also trainable skills. The more capable we are with these skills the better we’ll do in the world.

The program provides a simple framework for people to begin to understand and appreciate the value of these traits. Participants might arrive tentative about meditation but once you ask them if they struggle with focus they all start nodding and get on board. I think many people misunderstand meditation. It isn’t about clearing your mind or achieving a certain heightened state; it’s about being quietly aware of the state that you’re in – even if that’s chaotic – about checking in with yourself.

Tell us about your decision to become an SIY teacher.

It was for a combination of personal and professional reasons. Professionally, I’d hit my 40s before it occurred to me that I wasn’t really paying attention; that I was so ambitious and hungry I was always focused on the next thing and not at all appreciative of what was going on around me. I could see that in the way I was conducting myself professionally but also in my personal relationships. I was very distracted.

I stumbled into SIY as a participant and loved it, and then a friend suggested I apply to teach it. It was quite a competitive process but they chose 60 people to teach the program around the world and I was very lucky to be one of them.

Do you think the fact that big companies are embracing SIY is representative of a new shift in business?

Optimistically I’ll say yes, that more businesses are interested in the wellbeing and performance of their people and are going out of their way to cultivate that. Cynically, the answer is that sometimes it’s driven out of necessity. People are burning out and that manifests in absenteeism, disengagement, poor performance. Either way a program like this one has a lot of potential to help people.

The all-important question – does the program involve neuroplasticity and will it make us smarter?

It’s about the beginning of that journey. In two days no-one’s promising that you’ll rewire your brain but it is about becoming aware that the brain is transformable and, even as adults, there is an opportunity to change the ways our mind works; to create new pathways. I’ve heard we have somewhere between 50-70,000 thoughts a day and that somewhere between 70-80 per cent of those are negative and around 90 per cent of them we’ve had before, so many people would embrace creating some new thought grooves!

The course is one to two days. Can you give us some idea of what those days involve?

The program is structured around five emotional intelligence competencies, the first of which is self-awareness, which is crucial for building emotional intelligence. Self-management is the next layer up – learning to manage what’s happening to you emotionally and being less reactive to things. The next one is motivation. Beyond that is empathy. While the first three are more inward looking the fourth is starting to look at how you are in the world. The last one is leadership. How do you bring those four disciplines into the demands of being a leader?

In the course people partner up with someone and support each other in the weeks following. You’re also sent home with resources to read up on and after four weeks there’s a follow-up session.

What sort of response do you get from people following the program?

It’s overwhelmingly positive. People talk about their ability to gather and maintain attention, to relate to others, to manage their stress and reactivity… we often survey participants afterwards and the feedback is always amazing. Overall, 89 per cent of all surveyed participants felt they had improved ability to deal with stress, 91 per cent reported enhanced clarity of mind and 85% per cent reported increased ability to connect with others.

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