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What if … change is handled with kindness?

Image shows a team of 9 colleagues on a purple background. All 9 team members have been given cartoon bodies with simple tops and bottoms in a range of colours including black, white, green, orange, and pinks. They each have photographic heads. The team leader (Dee) is the sixth person along and is shown larger than the other team members. They have a cartoon superhero costume resembling Wonder Woman and a huge, beaming smile on the photograph of their face. The image has a white Scottish SPCA logo in the top right hand corner. White text on the image reads, "We'll miss you Dee!"]

I first spotted this month’s guest, Dee Russell, taking about change on LinkedIn and I was delighted when they agreed to share their experience and tips with us. Change is often difficult but it can be a very different experience for all concerned when it is handled with kindness.

I’ve led teams through organisational change since 2018. The types of change, size of organisation, and volume of people affected have varied significantly. But a consistently effective tool in my approach is kindness.

Charities and change

In my charity career, none of the organisations I’ve worked with has lacked vision. Vision for a world that looks different to the one we have right now. A world with greater value placed on environmental sustainability; where social injustice does not exist; where animals live well; where children and young people have hope for their future; or a world where chronic disease does not equal an end to life as you know it.

Every single charity I’ve worked with has a vision for a kinder world.

In taking steps to achieve the vision, many of these charities have embarked on transformational change programmes. These have resulted in restructures, role changes, role redundancies (and associated ‘jumping ship’ responses), uncertainty, instability, and fear.

Leading with kindness

Kindness is defined as:

the quality of being kind. to treat somebody with kindness and consideration.

Synonymous words include:

  • charity
  • compassion
  • generosity
  • humanity
  • understanding.

When I think about leading through change, compassion features heavily. I’m starting from a position of empathy and recognition that change is complex. While some people may be excited and optimistic, others are experiencing pain, uncertainty, instability. Sometimes even grief.

Professional fundraisers talk about supporters. HR professionals will refer to colleagues or, funnily enough, people. In professional communications we talk about audiences. We’re actually all talking about the same thing.

In my leadership through change, I’ve leaned hard into the lived experience of my ‘audiences’. I’ve sought to understand how my peers, my direct reports, and their direct reports are feeling about the organisation, its vision and objectives, and the change(s). I ask questions. I want to understand what people are looking forward to, what’s gone well and why, and what could have gone differently and how.

Understanding makes it easier for me to demonstrate humanity in relationships and communications. It’s easier to show compassion with those colleagues who are genuinely struggling to find their feet in a new setup, environment, role, or remit. When I understand people, it’s easier for me to re-engage them in what we’re trying to achieve as an organisation. And it’s easier for them to reignite their passion because they’ve felt safe to be honest about how they’re feeling.

I’ve discovered that, with kindness, I can bring people on a change journey more swiftly. Creating psychologically safe spaces where people can express their fears and hopes for the future, encountering their feelings without judgement, seems to speed up the process of accepting change. I can effect positive change in a relatively short space of time — weeks rather than months — rallying teams behind shared goals.

Kindness is not niceness

Leading people through changes that are in motion means that I’m not in a position to control the changes they’re finding difficult. However, I’m very much in a position to influence how they’re responding to change. To listen, to help people to understand the nature of the changes and what they mean for them.

In leading with kindness, colleagues are ‘free’ to do their best work because I’ve been in a position to hear them. To respond to their concerns. To bring clarity where they’ve shared that something has been unclear. To bring certainty when something or someone has been uncertain, even if that certainty has been difficult to share. To pin up examples of excitement, optimism, and hope that exist within the team, giving people purposeful goals, aspirations, and objectives to hold to.

And I’ve found that the biggest difference between my approach and those of contemporaries who’ve described extreme difficulty with leading through change has been starting with humanity. Or compassion.

Or kindness, if you will.

Practical tips to takeaway

I could not undertake this work without using effective communication from the outset. And when I talk about effective communications through change, I mean leading with kindness. In terms of checklist material, the top 3 practical tools I use are:

Informal meetings

I will have one on one conversations with peers and line reports. It’s simple, and I only ask them to share what they most want me to know about what’s changing (or changed). I take notes and share them post-session to check my understanding of their experience and perspective.

Team ‘getting to know you’ session(s)

I will run full directorate or smaller team sessions that use ‘manual of me’ as the basis for the session. The sessions tend to highlight quite quickly who needs some additional support to find their feet in a new role or new ways of working. I’ll use session outcomes to work with leaders on an action plan and timeline so that we’re accountable for taking the actions.

Wins and worries

I’ve used several mechanisms for this over the years. A weekly teams channel that shared the win of the week and face palm of the week, or an ice-breaker in each team catch up. There are many approaches but the basic premise is creating spaces where we actively celebrate achievements (irrespective of size), and where we face into failure or concern. Together.

Using those 3 tools is not all I do. Nor will they cure all ills. They’re a practical springboard to leading with kindness.

Critically, I make time for colleagues. If this means moving a report along the timeline, ducking out of a meeting where someone can feed back to me afterwards, or shifting my diary around, I will do it. I try never to move someone’s one to one time (save for extenuating circumstances like sickness or bereavement), and I try not to miss a team meeting without notice and delegation. That way, I build trust.

About Dee Russell

As a charity engagement strategist, Dee generally leads on charity income generation, strategic communications, and brand marketing. The route to achieving outcomes has required a high degree of change management throughout their career. Often arriving in post either at the tail end of structural change, or amid the uncertainty that change brings, they have led teams through change. They’ve embedded people in new roles, developed new ways of working, and created environments that are set up to succeed by working to shared goals. And they rely on kindness. You can find them on LinkedIn.

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