From apoliticalPublic Sector
June 10, 2020

Self-care for public servants: how do you think and feel about change?

How you think and feel about change will determine what you do. Or maybe it is the other way around.

There is a story about an ancient emperor who sent their envoys to seek the ultimate truth. After years of failing to find the one thing that is eternal, the last envoy returns to tell the emperor that they finally found the eternal truth. The old person leans forward in anticipation to hear the secret they had waited a lifetime to learn. The envoy looks the emperor in the eye and whispers, “this too will change”.

The universe and the planet are in constant evolution. All life is about change, we are born, we live, we die. We could talk about social change and imagining better futures, or we could talk about complexity and experimentation in organizational change. These are worthy topics, but I want to make this article about you, your career and your personal development. To do that, I am going to talk about thinking, feeling and doing.

Thinking about change

If you’ve ever done any kind of deep thinking you know that one perspective is rarely enough. We sometimes call these lenses, or layers, frames or points of view. In service design, we try to incorporate the users perspective.

On a personal level, we might think of how others perceive us as a colleague, partner, a parent or friend. Whatever you call it, how you choose to view any situation shapes your reality in profound ways.

One perspective that I have found useful in navigating my life with minimum anxiety has been what is sometimes called spheres of influence.

altBad art created by the author

You are at the centre of a relatively small sphere in which you have quite a bit of control. You can choose to get up at 5 am and go for a run, for example, or you can choose to stay in bed. The next, larger sphere is the environment you can influence, and the largest sphere is all that which is beyond your direct control or influence. The sizes of the spheres vary from person to person.

In many cases, the rational arguments we build are actually justifications for unconscious beliefs and feelings

Your agency is the effect you have on the world and yourself. Practically speaking you may not have control over the largest sphere, but the thing is, that biggest sphere is made up of our collective agency interacting with the environment within a complex universe. So if we all use our agency to make a choice maybe we can influence that extended sphere, like ripples on a pond.

I don’ t want to position this model as the “be all and end all”, it’s just one piece of the puzzle that I have found helpful. It reminds me that when thinking about change, you never know for sure, so it’s a good idea to proceed with the mindset that your understanding is probably wrong and definitely incomplete. Over time your understanding of a situation will improve and your confidence will grow — but even then you are only right until you are wrong.

How do you feel about that?

How we interact with the world is one side of change. Another is how we feel about it — the emotions change can unleash. If you think feelings are kind of mushy and not worth your time, maybe you should think again.

In my work on Consumer Behaviour, I have come to believe that the primary motivator for most decisions we make as individuals, is emotion. Simply put, we are not Vulcans — the cerebral and emotionally distant race from the sci-fi classic, Star Trek. In public service, we sometimes create decision making processes and committees to try and impose logic and weed out the squishy stuff. But even if we gather all the evidence, evaluate the options and weigh the pros and cons, the final decision often comes down to a question of does this feel right? In fact, I believe that in many cases the rational arguments we build are actually justifications for unconscious beliefs and feelings.

Evidence and logic are important, but only part of the picture. A worldview without feelings is woefully incomplete

This is important to recognize if you are trying to influence people to achieve a policy outcome for instance. The facts are important, but for many, a feeling will drive the behaviour. If you have been trained in rational thought, you may have a hard time accepting the reality that much human behaviour is irrational.

Advertisers have known this for a century or more. Economists are just beginning to realize it. No one really knows how to measure it.

Understanding emotional impact is important strategically but also personally. Your own emotions will “cloud your judgement”, so touch base with others frequently. Be mindful, magnanimous and meditate regularly. If your emotions are out of control, or if you are completely unaware of them, get some help. This might mean talking to a friend you trust or taking advantage of the Mental Health resources that are available to you.

Speaking of mental health, remember that you become what you consume. If your feeds are filled with sensational posts that make you anxious, turn them off. Unfollow the idiots and find sources that cross boundaries and seek to make connections. Take a lesson from librarians and curate what you let into your mind, look for sources that are realistic, but choose to be optimistic. Keep some anti-ideas in your feed.

Another super important thing you can do to work on how you feel about change is to get some nature in your life. Whether it is a walk in the forest or cultivating a seedling in the window of your apartment, or living with a pet — get connected with the environment that we are all part of. You will be happier and healthier for it.

We could go on about emotions, and they are worthy of study. I think the point I am trying to make here is that evidence and logic are important, but only part of the picture. A worldview without feelings is woefully incomplete. Without the squishy stuff, your best-laid plans will go awry.

Just Do it

We have all heard the phrase “Actions speak louder than words” but in my experience of working in the public service, we usually have a lot more words than action. Words are good, they are what we use to try and create a shared understanding so we don’t do stupid things. But sometimes you have to do something, learn from what happens and then do another thing. Any system that is optimized for efficiency and stability will naturally reject this bias for action as unnecessary disruption and risk.

If you want to do something important, change a habit

Organizational innovation, agile or experimentation programs need to acknowledge this reality and leaders need to protect them to have any hope of success.

A common theme when talking about change is the idea that humans adopt patterns of behaviour which they repeat without conscious thought. These habits can be part of the inertia that resists change, they can add up to be the cause of bigger problems, or they can be designed to achieve a goal. If you want to do something important, change a habit. Even a small one.

By doing something, almost anything really, you are extending your spheres of influence. Your actions probe the unknown, the ripples travel across the pond and interact with others and you never know what good things might happen. At the very least you will learn something.

Ripples on a pond

My father, who grew up in the depression of the 1920s and lived through WWII, used to say “do what you can, with what you got”. He would go on to tell my mother that there was no point in worrying about things you cannot change, “put the energy into changing the things you can”. It seems to me that much distress comes from worrying about that which is beyond our control.

That small action, those little feelings, those tiny thoughts of yours have the potential to combine with others and collectively determine our future on this planet

You may think that your sphere of control is too limited to have any real impact and if you truly believe that, you will be correct. But please think about it for a minute. You always have a sphere of control, even if it is only how you choose to think about a situation. You can almost always influence your own emotional state and be happier if you want to. And there is always some small action you can take.

That small action, those little feelings, those tiny thoughts of yours have the potential to combine with others and collectively determine our future on this planet. So no pressure, but you have some choices to make. What do you think? How do you feel? What will you do?

This piece originally appeared on Apolitical, the global network for public servants. You can find the original here. For more like this, see Apolitical’s government innovation newsfeed.

About this author

Avatar

Thom Kearney

This article is written by Thom Kearney, a Free Agent in the government of Canada. These are his opinions and may not reflect those of his employer.

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

From apolitical
 
Due to lockdowns and border closures around the world, Covid-19 has...
 
There is a story about an ancient emperor who sent their...
 
The role of  cities  is evolving. This is mostly out of necessity....
 
Being a small town public servant can be tough. Municipalities are...
 
Over the past week, with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, I’ve...
 
When pandemics like the coronavirus (COVID-19) strike, authorities and governments are...
 
Governments across the world have made great strides toward providing financial...
 
It’s easy to assume, perhaps thanks to all the  lurid tabloid headlines , that...
 
What was once Santiago’s largest food distribution centre, the Vega Poniente...
 
Government: the very word invokes quite different responses for different people....
 
Why is evidence in policy important? The world we are living in...
 
2019 has been a breakthrough year for data and AI in...
 
Trust slowly evolves when  citizens , society, and governments  collaborate  and do it...
 
“What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and...
 
That hypnotically red eye. That eerily meticulous, methodical, and measured voice....
 
What’s your organisation’s mission? Hopefully, you know what it does on...
 
Thanks to the development of new technologies that make previously unimaginable...
 
Throughout the history of economic thought, government has long been seen...
 
The digitalisation of the economy has been a blessing for the...
 
In late March the ONS detailed the occupations in the UK...
 
If you have checked any news media today, you’ll likely have...
 
We live in the age of paradox.  Never before in human...
 
The evidence that design reaps multiple benefits for service delivery  is growing ....
 
In the next year, one in three US federal government workers...
 
Despite a rapid expansion in digital democracy initiatives around the globe,...
 
Impact investment has taken Canada by storm, opening the doors to...
 
Below is a piece of design fiction focused on what it...
 
Buying Social. Responsible sourcing. Ethical procurement. Sustainable procurement. Whatever name you...
 
The use of “nudges” in policymaking has been a major trend...
 
“Innovation is a foreign word in the public sector.” “Public employees...
 
When data.gov launched in May of 2009, the site seemed to...
 
In 2017, identity theft cost Americans $16.8 billion, and, in just...
 
When James Cattell, a delivery manager at the UK’s Department for...
 
Why do the richest 1 per cent of Americans take 20...
 
Urban officials dream of a future of “smart cities” that use...
 
In the three years to 2020, Canada will welcome almost a...
 
Governments everywhere are announcing new strategies for artificial intelligence. From France, which has...
 
Almost one in two preschool children in Canada live in a...
 
A single team or lab could never create the volume of...
 
Talk of robots in the labour market usually focuses on their...
 
Innovation labs and units have become so fashionable in the public...
 
Can government remember? Is it condemned to repeat mistakes? Or does...
 
“Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge...
 
For policymakers around the world, Canada frequently leads the way on...
 
Since launching in 2014, Sweden’s radically ‘feminist’ foreign policy has gained international notoriety. While...
 
As Executive Director of the UK’s Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
Due to lockdowns and border closures around the world, Covid-19 has...