Mindfulness, the ability to pay attention in the present without distraction or judgment, isn’t frivolous in a learning context — it’s about science, and it’s helping software developer SAP’s employees be better workers.
by Kate Everson
January 2, 2015
SIY program founder Chade-Meng Tan, left, and SAP's mindfulness programs director Peter Bostelmann at trainings in October 2014 at SAP's offices in Palo Alto, California. (Photo courtesy of SAP)
When asked why he created the Search Inside Yourself program, a development series that cultivates self-awareness and mindfulness, Google Inc.’s “Jolly Good Fellow” Chade-Meng Tan said it’s part of his plan to promote world peace.
“The way to do it is to align peace, joy and compassion with success and profits,” he said. “The vehicle for getting there is emotional intelligence because everyone knows it’s good for their careers.” In the professional arena, Tan’s world peace conditions happen to be necessary side effects to motivation, better teamwork and emotional awareness, which all add up to higher emotional intelligence.
At SAP, the latter three benefits have already started to appear, even if world peace isn’t the goal behind its implementation of Search Inside Yourself, or SIY, practices. The international software developer ran pilots of the two-day program in the U.S. and Germany in 2014, and plans to roll out test sessions this yearas measurements of how the practice has improved its workforce continue to pour in through post-session surveys.
“Mindfulness is woven throughout all of our curriculum,” said Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s chief learning officer. “It’s a very strong theme at SAP for our managers to understand the importance of their role in leadingmindfulness.”
Search Inside SAP
Dearborn, who became CLO in January 2014, had heard about mindfulness and meditation’s influence on workers. At the same time, SAP engineer Peter Bostelmann, now the company’s director of mindfulness programs, had been practicing meditation for some time and knew its benefits in his own life. He had initiated the first two SIY pilots at SAP in Palo Alto in June 2013.
The two connected and decided to use the SIY program in a more global way to mitigate an increasing amount of stress-related health problems and to increase engagement and create stronger leaders. Not only does the program’s meditation aspect relax the body physically, it trains the brain to be more emotionally intelligent, a characteristic found in most successful leaders.
At SAP, the program delivers these objectives through two 8-hour days of lecture, self-practice and group sharing structured around the five domains of emotional intelligence. They begin with the foundation: self-awareness. Bostelmann said people connect better if they know their own strengths, weaknesses and how they react to situations.
The second domain is regulation, which focuses on managing emotions. “Once you know yourself better, you will manage yourself better,” Bostelmann said. They then move on to motivation, where participants begin to align how they handle their emotions with how they lead their lives and achieve their career goals.
While the first three steps focus on internal mindfulness, the final two focus on interactions. Empathy, the fourth domain, helps participants understand their built-in ability to connect and discern personal emotions felt by others, two skills that contribute to becoming better leaders.
Finally, the program develops social and leadership skills, where everything comes together. Bostelmann said it’s about training people to relate to the world and to use the friction that may arise to deepen and build more authentic relationships. “The way we choose to think about things has an impact on our brain,” he said. “We can shift the way we have difficult conversations, how we react in conflicts, how we manage ourselves and how we use human interactions in work and private life.”
When the training is over, the practice continues. The first chapter of Tan’s book introduces the idea of spending two minutes a day sitting without agenda. There’s an “easy” way — focusing on the breath and shutting out all other thoughts — and an “easier” way, which is to focus on nothing at all. Through the practice, people gain control over their reactions and train their attention, which helps them tune out distractions and focus on a single task, person or idea.
That meditation approach is a small part of the bigger program. Simply being more self-aware and nonjudgmental slows participants down enough to get themselves off a habitual cycle that blocks them from seeing beyond their emotions to what’s really going on around them, Bostelmann said.
When putting together the program, Tan’s goal was to train the brain to immediately consider the other person’s happiness. He said when you have that habit, it becomes your personality. “By training the personality, we change people and improve their social emotional skills.”
What’s in a Name?
But even though a full explanation shows how SIY works to develop leadership skills, some still see it as kind of fluffy. How can a conservative softwarecompany like SAP get its employees interested, let alone invested, in a program that appears to be the equivalent of sitting in a circle singing “Kumbaya”?
The answer lies in how it’s marketed to employees. Bostelmann said he thought the program would be good for his fellow employees, but he knew from experience of trying to coach colleagues with a blend of old traditions and modern psychology that mindfulness isn’t always taken seriously. “Some have allergic reactions to anything that sounds spiritual or touchy-feely,” he said.
SIY is anything but unscientific. Part of its development was based on work by neuroscientists such as Philippe Goldin, a pioneer in emotional intelligence research, and University of California at Los Angeles’ Matthew Lieberman and David Creswell. The latter team’s work found that people strong in mindfulness access more of the brain’s circuitry by incorporating the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which helps in managing emotions. A 2014 study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found the brain processes more thoughts and emotions during meditation. Others touted its ability to relieve anxiety, lengthenattention span and even curb addiction or lower blood pressure.
Bostelmann and Tan agreed that the best way to get reluctant employees on board with mindfulness training like SIY is to point out the benefits it will have on their career performance. Tan likened the program to physical exercise. Most people understand thatbecomingfit makes them more energetic and thereforeimproves their performance at work. The same goes for mindfulness, which essentially trains the emotional faculties that enable mental fitness.
Participants aren’t the only ones who have to be sold on a program, however. Leaders like to know how the time and money their organization spends on learning programs boosts their bottom lines. SAP’s Dearborn said, explicitly, if learning leaders can’t measure it, they shouldn’t be doing it.
“This is not about making employees happy,” she said. “It’s about how to get out of a rut … There is incredible science and research behind the value of opening your mind, daydreaming and forgetting and re-remembering.”
Yet employees likely will become happier as they also become better employees. In post-session SAP surveys, U.S. participants said they felt less stressed and more focused, engaged, collaborative and creative. Respondents also said their overall well-being had increased by 6 percent six weeks after starting the SIY mindfulness programs.
To continue on this path of more mindful employees, Dearborn said the company plans to bring the course to all of its 6,000 managers, who oversee the majority of SAP employees.She said she encourages all employees to partake and plans for all new hires to beexposed to the concepts during onboarding.
Dearborn said that because the program has had such great results on the company’s employees, she’s hesitant to let any of her competitors know about it. “Let Oracle think this is some program Google just does,” she said. “I don’t want anyone else to know that this is imperative for any business to be successful.”
Bostelmann, on the other hand, said he is excited to share how much SAP’s engineers have benefited from SIY, both in the U.S. where they held the first pilot and inGermany, where they carried it over in July 2014. “It’s an exciting thing that this is becoming a broader movement,” Bostelmann said. “My gut feeling here is based on the excitement I’ve seen; this will all become bigger.”
It might even bring about world peace. Who knows?