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

By Thom Kearney

February 18, 2021


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 organisational 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.


Bad 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.

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.

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 optimised for efficiency and stability will naturally reject this bias for action as unnecessary disruption and risk.

Organisational 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.

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 article is curated from Apolitical.

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