Character vs. Competencies – a note on kindness

I hope you have had a restful and festive time with those you love over the Christmas and New Year period. Even though there is a negative, over-commercialised side to Christmas, my family and I have never failed to get excited about this time of year because of its real meaning – the importance of relationships, the act of loving, giving, receiving, togetherness, and gratitude.

This Christmas, I have been continuously struck by the critical importance of human kindness – how kindness keeps the world going round, as they say. I saw someone go and buy hot food for a homeless person; I witnessed someone who was struggling financially being given money by another so that they could afford presents and a tree. The builders who have been doing work on our house worked around the clock right up until Christmas in order to give us back a semi functional kitchen (a working oven, an old sink and a stove) so that my family could have home cooked meals over Christmas (we have lived without a kitchen for over 3 months). I have received more presents than I need from my family, especially from my 16 year old who has limited resources.

I could go on and on about kindness. But the greatest kindness that has moved me has been the offers of a kidney from 11 members of my family and friends in the past year. To think of offering one of your vital organs to someone else is beyond me. My nephew, who also has kidney failure, underwent a successful transplant operation last year because a man who lost his son in an accident decided he wanted to be an altruistic donor – to give life in remembrance of the son he lost. He kick started a chain of transplants -11 people were given the chance to live a normal life because he had chosen to be kind.

My own news is that a very special friend of mine came forward to give me a kidney last autumn but was rejected by the system – we were found to be incompatible. However, three days before Christmas the medical team changed their minds because of the progressive decline of my condition, and proposed using Alix’s kidney. This will involve putting me (my blood) onto a rigorous regime to strip me of most of my antibodies. If this proposal does go through (the decision date is 26th January) I will have the transplant some time in the Spring. Alix (my donor) has put herself in a vulnerable place in order to give me a chance to live a normal life again. That is a true mark of kindness and I am deeply grateful.
So what does this have to do with the field of OD? I think, a lot, – the character of OD practitioners, our approach in the helping relationship, and the impact a kind helper will have on clients.

I do not think I need to say much to remind you how crucial kindness is in any relationship – both personally and professionally. Just think about the last time you were feeling down and someone did something to perk you up so that you could go forward in spite of the difficulties. Think about the last time a client relationship worked: it may have been because you went out of your way to deliver extraordinary support to them, or perhaps they were consistently kind towards you even though you made a misjudgement. Consider how a client team manages to work well because within the team there is someone who is willing to go the extra mile to complete a challenging task on behalf of the group. Think about how positive you feel when someone – for example your boss or your colleague – openly acknowledges your good work and shows appreciation.
I think as a helper in a system, being kind and courteous is very important.

Let me focus on the context that makes kindness important. In most consulting situations, we are called to help the leaders to disrupt the coherence of the system because the leaders believe that the system needs to shift into a different state. They come to us not because they do not know how to disrupt the system, but because they know the disruption is a psychologically costly business, and if the changes are not done right, then they know they can not engage the troops to stay creative during the disruption and the ownership of the new coherence will be slim. Hence, they know they do need help to “do the disruption in a more compassionate way.”

The leaders may not use the word compassion explicitly, but often you and I can pick that up from their briefing. Compassion, at root, means to suffer together. It also means to bring people comfort, strength, courage, and help people to speak their truth even if they are angry. Since there are lots of implicit undercurrents of emotion flowing around during “disruption”, it is our job to be sensitive and notice the anxieties and worries – conscious or unconscious – that affect individual and group function. In fact, by the time we are called in, the individual or the group may be already experiencing difficulties so deeply that they need someone to help who is neutral and non-judgemental and who is committed to the restoration of the situation.

Most of the clients we work with are also likely to be suffering in some sort of dysfunctional relationship with some of their colleagues or superiors because of in-house politics, individual differences, or personality clashes. On top of that some of them also carry worries relating to their home front: for example, an unresolved child-care situation; having to work longer hours and the impact that has on their domestic relationship; a sense of guilt that they have to impose their needs on those around them. Or even an ill child or partner, or parents. While our role is not to be their psychotherapists, we need to be sufficiently aware of the complex human dynamics among the client systems we work in. We need to show sensitivity, build bridges and foster trust so that we are in a position to serve them well – i.e. to support them sufficiently so that they are free to sort out their own issues and get things done.

So what does being kind mean? And what does kind behaviour look like for OD practitioners? Bear with me as I venture to give a few examples.
First, being kind means that you and I are there to serve the needs of the clients and not our own needs. We are there for the clients – for example, focusing on what might be a positive move for them regardless of whether that move would fulfil our own desire for security, recognition, self-esteem and power.
Second, we stay empathetic and cultivate a presence that will convey to them that we know their struggles and our support of them is free from complicated motives. Thus if they miss a deadline in delivering their agreed work assignment, we do not judge them or become critical of them. We show understanding of their workload and capacity situation.
Third, in our communication to them we do not keep rigidly to our own preference style saying, “This is how I always do communication”; instead we focus on their most receptive channel and shift our style wherever necessary. Commitment to working with their preference will make us more effective in our communication with them.
Fourth, we stay non-judgemental and accept the differences between them and us even though the differences may make us uncomfortable and cause them to reject some of our suggestions and ideas.

Fifth, we are committed to their growth and development – enlarging their capacity to do their own work, rather than building their dependency on us. Giving them the dignity of authentic conversation (instead of escaping real conversation about real issues) will be a sign of kindness.
Sixth, we stay discrete and act as a safe confidant to the clients so that they have a sense of safety when they share their views with us.
Seventh, we stay a step ahead of them, always pre-empting their needs or anxieties by being proactive in sorting out practical issues – for instance, calling a meeting, having draft agendas ready, reminding them about key issues that may have slipped off their mental lists.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list of kind behaviour, but it helps remind us of some of the small, basic actions that will convey our kindness to our clients. If kindness is not a word that make sense to you then substitute it with empathy, or coming alongside, or being supportive, or a client focused approach. Whatever term we choose, it is a character virtue which OD writing seldom identifies explicitly.

Is there a danger of being too kind? Yes – anything can be overused and have an imbalanced impact. However, we must hold on to the key goal of OD practitioners – to help our clients improve their situation and, in so doing, help them become independent and better able to solve their problems themselves. You see, kindness is a freeing agent rather than a binding agent, especially if those who bestow kindness have no other motive than to give appropriate support and help to those who are asking for it.
I have finished the lengthy chapter on OD practitioners in my upcoming book, and I regret that I did not discuss character at all; hence this blog to remind myself that character is as important as competencies for us in our development. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

I’d like to adapt her saying to “please do not ever think one person’s kindness cannot light up the world, that is all we have”. Go and light up someone’s world this year.