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The Virtues of Government Service – Number 3: Compassion

Government’s Role vis-a-vis Compassion

Does government have a role in bringing compassion to people? Isn’t that more the job of churches, civic organizations and non-profits? Well, the Constitution does mention somewhere (check the first sentence) that bit about “promoting the general welfare of the Nation in order to promote a more perfect union.”

Regardless, you needn’t worry if you’re not the compassionate type. You probably won’t be fired if you don’t bring compassion to work. Just realize that you and your colleagues and the citizenry you serve won’t realize the full value you might have if you’d thrown in an ounce or two of compassion.

Concerning compassion, Ronald Reagan said this:

“Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it. We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your makeup. How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, not reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick and provide opportunities to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”

That’s nice. Words from a politician. But, seriously. Can’t we put all this touchy-feely stuff aside and just do our jobs? Well, we could. What’s the fun and profit of that? And, people who are having fun do a better job at work. Countless studies show that these people tend to be happier, more productive and, commercially, they produce higher returns on human capital (ROHC). Why else would the most admired companies spend millions nourishing cultures that promote compassion?

The Threat to Compassion

The greatest threat to compassion and the attainment of its related benefits is indifference. You’ve seen it. Heard it. “I’m just here for a paycheck, not trying to change the world.” This cynical attitude is pervasive and insidious.

It’s easy for the critic to knock the person who’s trying to steer the battleship with his or her minnow’s oar.  There’s an old quote that goes something like this: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” Think it can’t be done? Since my time of service in the Air Force in the 1980’s, I’ve seen a remarkable transformation in the culture of government. The old model mandated “Command and Control” leadership was solely a function of the authority granted by job title. Position power, they called it. Now I see much more courageous leadership coming from all levels, regardless of title. Along with this is an openness to creativity and innovation.

Compassion in the workplace is also on the rise. So, ask yourself, what can I do to accelerate the process of change and improvement? Here are some ideas.

The Compassionate You

Growing compassion – increasing your ability to be compassionate – is a good personal and business decision. Compassion is something into which successful, happy people invest time and energy.

  1. Start with self-compassion. What’s that, you ask? It’s not self-indulgence.
    • Self-compassion means you are understanding when confronted with your failings. The key is what you do with that “feedback.”
    • Don’t mercilessly judge and criticize yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings.
    • Think how you would react if a close friend or relative had a similar failing. You’d try to be helpful, offer encouragement and support. Right? Try that on yourself.
  2. Keep a proper perspective so as not to become self-centered. Mentally relate your personal experiences to those of others who may also be suffering, thus putting your own situation into a larger perspective.

The Compassionate Leader

If you’re a leader in government, you might look at how you provide your services to the citizens you serve.  Can you see any opportunities to crowbar a little compassion into the process somewhere, somehow? You might want to try something “in-house” first. Designate one day a week as your day to do a definitive act of compassion, expecting nothing in return. Then, hold yourself accountable. Remember, corporate culture is top-down, and compassionate leadership by example is almost always a winner.

Now that you’re on a roll, initiate a voluntary challenge to your organization. For example, you might do a “Caught in the Act” program where one employee nominates another for a compassionate action. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Maybe someone cleaned out the office refrigerator or visited a colleague in the hospital. Now, publicly acknowledge the person. Use a staff meeting to recognize the person for their compassionate act. Suggest that other offices implement similar programs. If you’re an agency executive, maybe you start a contest for the “Compassionate Act of the Month.” Let your heart be your guide and your head will surely follow!

Was He Compassionate or Just Cunningly Smart?

Harkening back to my Air Force experiences again, I recall an occasion when, as a Junior Officer, I happened to be working late one evening. The office was quiet when I heard footsteps in the hall. The next thing I knew, BGen Don Kutyna was in “my” office. He looked around, sat down and then proceeded to ask me my opinion about the morale of Junior Officers under his command.

We discussed this for the next five minutes and I believe he was genuinely interested. For the next few days, all I could talk about was how “General Kutyna was in my office and asked my opinion…” A few days later, knowing that the surf would be “up” on the California coast where we worked, he authorized us to come in a few hours late so that we could catch the best waves. Was that an act of compassion? Maybe not overtly or intentionally. But it had the impact of one. Point being, you don’t need to wear it on your sleeve. Just do it.  And recognize compassion when it’s shown towards you. Then you show it for another. You’ll both be glad you did.

 Rick Pfautz is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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