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Why We Need Joy in Government


September 7, 2018 by Government Performance Consortium
Category: Government Performance Consortium

Why We Need Joy in Government

Written by Larisa Benson and Chelsea Lei

Joy. That’s what’s missing from our government.

On a rainy November afternoon, 12 people from eight local governments squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder around a long table in a narrow conference room at the University of Washington Tacoma. After shaking off the usual tensions carried in the workplace, they began to smile and nod as they went around the table to express what they need from the group and what they are willing to give. There was a growing feeling of joy in the room; joy of seeing and being seen by peers who share the same purpose and live the same challenge.

For three years, we have been working with this group, along with over 1,200 government practitioners across Washington State. Through training forums, strategic conversations, and design workshops, we explored the “next horizon” of the modern government organization. As conveners and catalysts of this learning journey, we researched and reflected on the state of performance improvement in the public sector, studied network and social learning leadership, applied human centered design, and experimented with emerging practices in facilitation. It’s been quite a journey.

Transforming the Experience of Serving in Government

We came to see that a defining human experience of working inside government can be summed up by the term “emotional waste”.

Few working in government can say they have not wasted substantial amount of time and energy away from doing productive work while experiencing loneliness in silos, fear of uncertain change, shame of being called not good enough, frustration over ambiguous goals and unfulfilled values, overwhelm by workload and unclear expectations, cynicism about "flavor of the month" new initiatives, or despair from feeling small and invisible.

We think emotional waste is at the root of the structural and process issues that create public distrust and helps explain why performance strategies have not delivered on the promise to earn the public’s trust. Therefore, a key to improving government is to transform the emotional experience of serving in government.

To do this work, we would need to reframe performance in terms of progress and in a broader context of organizational health. This means attending to aspects of human experience — like purpose, mastery, and connection — that transcend management, measurement and accountability. Groups of people who cultivate these human aspects will far outperform groups who are simply adopting the latest management fad and they will sustain improvement and innovation over time.

Why Joy

Accessing and sustaining joy is essential for transforming the emotional experience of serving in government. Joy is the emotion that accompanies mastery and a state of flow. What is high performance but working masterfully in flow? The joy we are talking about is not the happy-go-lucky feeling when things are going well at the moment. Rather, we are talking about joy that arises from pursuing purpose and joy that stimulates exploration, challenge-seeking, and striving to overcome great difficulty.

We know from neuroscience that our perception, cognition, creativity, and ability to collaborate with others are all stronger when our brains are in a “toward” state, as opposed to a state of perceived threat. People in government have become conditioned to thinking with a scarcity mindset, as if they are under constant siege. As a result, we often fail to see the resources and assets that are readily available around us to solve problems at low or no cost.

Joy shifts our focus from deficits to abundance, from doing things as they have always been done to trying a new way. Joy facilitates better and faster thinking than sorrow, despair, shame, and fear. Joy also enables connection and cohesion and deepens the wells of compassion necessary to engage with change, conflict, and society’s most vexing challenges.

We envision a future of government where joy is a prevailing human experience of working in government. Governments will simply not get more efficient or effective if the people tasked to make that happen feel joyless at work. This future already exists, but only in small islands where seeds of joy have sprouted in an otherwise vast, emotional wasteland. If we want a more vibrant society supported by a healthy, well-functioning government, we need to cultivate those seeds and connect those islands until the seeds of joy are thriving on a broad scale. 

A joyful government is one where the systems of work and structures of relationships support healthy human dynamics and development of individual and team mastery. A joyful government invites and supports people to access and sustain a sense of possibility, abundance, curiosity, and spaciousness. A joyful government radically reimagines its purpose as host of a generative space for humans to explore, grow and collaborate.

How to Create More Joyful Governments 

Based on what we have learned so far, well designed and facilitated meetings where everyone can contribute their voice and intelligence are the basic levers for shifting the daily experience of work inside government toward joy. Hosting communities of practice where practitioners can safely and authentically learn in public creates experience of joy through deepening connection and mastery. 

It also helps to use a common language about what and how to communicate, and to encourage personalized lean practices that improve people's ability to make and see daily progress. Last but not least, cultivating mindfulness — our mind and body's capacity for understanding and seeing/feeling connections — makes accessing the inner energies of joy possible and durable for the committed practitioners.  

Human flourishing inside government enables human flourishing outside of government. Governments should build public trust by building trust inside first. We believe that a more joyful government paves the way for a more trustworthy government that will support a world where more lives can flourish.

Join the GPC in conversation and continued learning and exploration! Check out www.govjoy.org, where you can download your free copy of Strategies for a More Joyful Government or join the Email List. You can also follow the GPC on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

About Government Performance Consortium

The Government Performance Consortium (GPC) convenes a vibrant network of civic thinkers and government practitioners across Washington State who are seeking to transform government from the inside out. Sponsored by MRSC, the State Auditor’s Office, and the KeyBank Professional Development Center, the GPC is co-led by Chelsea Lei and Larisa Benson.

The GPC offers a number or tools to help local government professionals interact with and learn from each other, including symposiums, events, and social media-based user groups.

The Government Performance Consortium writes for MRSC as a Government Performance Advisor. The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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