We REAP what we sow: How can we expect good outcomes if we don’t build the right skills? By Peter Yuile

Ministers, Agency Heads and CEOs need their executives to Respond, Engage, and Attend more effectively, and Produce (REAP) more sustainable solutions in dealing with the major issues confronting citizens, communities and employees. People want to be heard and responded to – thoughtfully and respectfully. So the REAP qualities are powerful tools to get jobs done better and with real impact.

However, these qualities require skilful implementation and they need to be modelled by senior people to make a difference. That was my experience as a senior executive.

In particular, the skills include being mindful, attentive and actively listening; having a capability to stand in the shoes of another person and deeply empathise, especially with those who have a very different lived experience; and then having the motivation and courage to respond practically and with compassion to the dislocation, suffering or disaffection being confronted.

The skills that support Responsiveness, Engagement, Attentiveness and Productivity are not easy to come by, but research is showing that they can be developed.

Modern neuroscience and psychology are bringing new insights to our understanding of the brain and how it interacts with our emotional regulatory systems to allow deeper appreciation of another’s perspective, as well as how to enable the decision-making capabilities required for a more complex and challenging policy, program and regulatory landscape. International research by Dr Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence and leadership; Dr Roman Krznaric’s insight into empathic conversations; and Professor Paul Gilbert’s writing on the courage required for truly compassionate responses are a few examples of those addressing the skills required of executives in modern organisations, public and private.

The trouble is that we are often bedazzled by calls for ‘strong leadership’. This regularly translates into those in charge bulldozing through on the basis of their own predispositions and prejudices, often responding at a basic and instinctive level to complex issues and not hitting the mark. And yet time and time again we hear that the so-called ‘soft’ skills are critical – being able to listen and respond calmly, thoughtfully and respectfully; working across silos to harness expertise and build effective partnerships; and motivating and maintaining effective working teams. This is what agencies and businesses need, to deliver positive outcomes – in economic, social and environmental policy settings. It is clear that ‘soft’ is in fact ‘hard’.

So what can we do? The first step is to acknowledge the critical importance of the basic skills required to Respond, Engage, Attend and Produce (REAP) good, sustainable outcomes. It is also important to recognise when they are in short supply.  The second step is to look for programs that can help executives build these skills. The third is to maintain practices which further develop and embed them in organisations.  These skills will make a difference to the outcomes being sought by Ministers and by chief executives and improve the performance of agencies and businesses. They will deliver resilience and a sense of achievement, while leading to policies and programs that are meaningful for citizens and communities.

Together with Dr Lynne Reeder, a fellow Director of Australia21 and Leader of the Mindful Futures Network, I have participated in such a program developed by Professor Dan Martin* and his colleague, Dr Yotam Heineberg, from Stanford University. It is an on-line, 8 part self-paced skills program that involves reading, reflection, journaling and action undertaken in partnership with a colleague. You need to be prepared to be open and honest with yourself and another. I found the whole course helpful, particularly the units on empathic listening and leadership; personal values and organisational alignment; understanding our emotion regulation systems and decision-making; and practising self-care and compassion – especially good for those who regularly beat themselves up about their performance! I believe this program could have real power and application in public and private sector organisations. If you think it could benefit you, your organisation and your clients, contact Australia21 (Australia21.org.au) to find out more.

Peter Yuile is a former Deputy Secretary in the APS who is currently involved in Coaching, Mentoring and Advising, and is a Director of Australia21 – see peteryuile.com.

*Dan Martin is Professor of Management in the Business School at California State University and an Adjunct at Stanford University’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist® specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.