The wisdom of creating a 'jolly good' workplace


Google's Singaporean cultural ambassador Mr Tan Chade Meng says business leaders have found the Wisdom 2.0 conference beneficial.

Singaporean Tan Chade-Meng is on a mission to promote goodness in the workplace. And he is starting at the top, with bosses and chiefs of industry.

Goodness is good for business and corporations are beginning to understand this, he says, making plain he is not spouting airy-fairy management psychobabble.

Very simply, managers who really love their staff become better leaders.

"Top managers who care about their people and show their affection are nice people, so they are loved by people working for them," he says.

"In general, the more you love your managers, the harder you work for them. This is true for knowledge workers because you can't enforce productivity or creativity."

When goodness and mindful leadership are combined, employees will get a sense of well-being and become more effective in their work, ultimately being useful to the world, he adds.

Mr Tan knows a few things about teaching people to be happy, or training themselves to be less stressed at work.

His job title at Google is Jolly Good Fellow. It had started as a joke, then it appeared on his name card.

Google stocks made him extremely wealthy and provided him the means to fund projects centred on compassion, mindfulness and happiness, to aid the cause for world peace.

All of this is actually part of his job at the global search giant.

The 43-year-old is currently enthused about Wisdom 2.0 Asia, a two-day conference on innovative and mindful leadership in the digital age, to be held in Singapore next month.

In a phone interview from the United States, where he is based, Mr Tan explains why this is important. "Today, technology makes everything move so much faster, so there's a problem with attention.

"The currency of information is people's attention, but there's an over-abundance of information, which leads to a poverty of attention."

The conference will focus on ways to deal with attention deficit arising from information overload.

It also aims to show people how to stay calm in their harried working lives to make good decisions.

It will also focus on promoting goodness at work among workplace leaders.

Wisdom 2.0 Asia follows the successful Wisdom 2.0 events in San Francisco, New York and other cities.

His Singaporean wife, Ms Teo Kim Choo, had attended the New York event and was impressed.

"She asked me to hold one in Singapore. So I'm doing what she asked me to do," Mr Tan quips.

He and Ms Teo, a housewife, have a teenage daughter.

He thinks the conference will benefit companies here.

"Singapore is at the crossroads of Asia, where East meets West. I believe people can learn about mindfulness and compassion from different cultures," he says.

Wisdom 2.0 Asia also builds on his work on mindfulness, which is about being aware of what is happening around you.

In 2007, he created a course on emotional intelligence for Google called Search Inside Yourself, teaching meditation techniques to build emotional intelligence.

Its premise, backed by scientific analysis, is that emotional intelligence is good for the individual and for business.

Thousands of Google employees have attended the course to develop self-awareness and self-mastery and create useful mental habits.

It is one of the most popular non-mandatory courses on the Google campus.

Mr Tan set up and funded the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (Siyli, pronounced "silly") which offers mindfulness courses to the public.

"Mindfulness can lead to happiness and eventually world peace," he says.

His professional segue from software engineering to engineering of the mind may seem an unlikely, and even wacky, deviation.

A software engineer who graduated from Nanyang Technological University, he went to the University of California at Santa Barbara, for postgraduate studies in computer science.

As Google employee No. 107, he was part of the development team for its mobile search software and became wealthy overnight from the stock he received when the tech giant went public.

Coding is no longer part of his work.

But he remains Google's cultural ambassador, playing host to guests including US President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala, when they visited Google's sprawling home in Mountain View, California.

"My job description today is seven words: Enlightened minds, open hearts, create world peace.

"This gives me a lot of leeway to do the various mindfulness projects. And (Google) gave it to me, a Singaporean," says Mr Tan, who is known for his toothy grin and sense of humour.

The devout Buddhist founded the philanthropic Tan-Teo Foundation which supports projects on compassion and world peace.

The foundation, named after his father and father-in-law, aims to promote peace, liberty and enlightenment.

He and the Dalai Lama are the founding patrons of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, which seeks a scientific understanding of compassion and meditation. Mr Tan is trying to change the inner mind through science.

He explains: "I'm funding a project to study what the brain looks like in meditative concentration. If you understand it scientifically, you can make it accessible to everyone."

Another pet project is One Billion Acts of Peace, organised by PeaceJam Foundation which he co-chairs. It aims to inspire one billion acts of peace worldwide by 2019.

His wish is for Singapore youth to perform 50 million acts of kindness.

"It can be as simple as cleaning up the beach."

Meditation for leadership and cultivating compassion

Wisdom 2.0 Asia is a conference that will highlight the importance of compassion and meditation in leadership.

Mr Tan Chade Meng, co-chairman of the conference, says agnostic meditation techniques backed by scientific findings will be shared at the conference.

"The conference discusses topics at the intersection of technology and mindfulness, which is about compassion and the pursuit of happiness," he tells The Sunday Times.

The conference has been held in San Francisco and New York, among other cities, over the past two years and participants have included technology bigwigs such as Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

"They have found it useful because they have been overwhelmed by a tsunami of information," says Mr Tan. "They learnt meditation techniques which can be used to calm their minds, to better focus on issues important to them."

Unlike in the 1960s, when meditation in the United States was associated with hippies, he says the focus now is on meditation for leadership and cultivating compassion, and it is gaining popularity among tech and corporate chieftains there.

Mr Tan will be here next month to lead Wisdom 2.0 Asia, which will be held on June 18 and 19 at Suntec convention centre. The guest of honour is Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, whom Mr Tan met when Mr Heng visited Google a few years ago.

Other speakers are meditation gurus and management experts, including Ms Tracy Woon, Citibank's vice-chairman for corporate and investment banking, Singapore; Ms Audrey Tan, co-founder of financial literacy start-up PlayMoolah; Mr Loren Shuster, chief commercial officer of the Lego Group; Catholic priest Laurence Freeman; and Google's human resource managers.

For more information on Wisdom 2.0 Asia, go to

This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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