The A to Z of OD: K is for Kindness

The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted. (Aesop)

The definition of organisational change can vary from ruthless mergers, downsizing and outsourcing that can and has adversely affected millions of workers’ lives, to fluffy learning conferences that amount to nothing more than getting your ticket punched on a jolly out of the office.

Do either of these extremes define or produce organisational success?  Well that depends on what you define as success – be it short-term profit focus or commissioning corporate entertainment to reward high-flyers.  Long-term organisational success?  I suspect not.

OD is neither of these extremes.  It is relentlessly focused on the change goal, considers the impact on the whole organisational system and is necessarily humanistic.  A colleague of mine often says you must be, “tough on the issues and gentle on the people.”  I think this defines what I mean by kindness in an OD context.

Believing in Kindness in OD (as I do), requires we pay deep attention to our clients’ wants and needs, enter equal partnerships with our clients, encourage them to go to the edge of their imagination, access their feelings, dig to uncover the information that will enable change and appreciate them when they make progress.  And that applies at the individual, team and organisational levels.  Attention, Equality, Encouragement, Feelings, Appreciation.  Curiously, these just happen to be five key components of another framework – a coaching framework based on Gestalt psychotherapy.  I wonder if there are things to be learned in our OD practice from that framework?  See OD Thought Leader: Nancy Kline.

OD Thought Leader: Nancy Kline

Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment is a Gestalt framework and method to help coaches act as their client’s thinking partner.  She outlines ten components that make for a good thinking environment.  I believe many of these are relevant to OD, so I shall introduce them here in that context.  What do you think?


Kline outlines that paying attention means listening without interruption, being interested in what your client says next in order to ignite their thinking.  As a thinking partner, “You understand that, as the catalyst for this fine thinking, you are both essential and irrelevant”.


The OD consultant simply must have an equal relationship with their client.  For external OD consultants, this is achieved by contracting well so that the boundaries of both the task and the relationship are well defined.  See OD Thought Leader: Peter Block, Flawless Consulting.  For internal OD practitioners, this can be harder to achieve, as it can be for any internal partnering relationship (e.g. Finance, HR).  The roles of servant and master are all too readily established.  Such relationships lead to a suboptimal delivery, a lack of fulfilment and often – in my experience – the closing down of internal change functions.


This is linked the paradoxical nature of change: if you try too hard to force it, it will not happen.  Our role as OD practitioners is to do less so that our clients do more.  To be the spark that ignites their thinking.  This can only happen if we are paying attention and in an equal partnering relationship. If not, then – for me at least – it’s not OD!


Kline asserts “people do their best thinking in the presence of Appreciation.  And they stop thinking in the presence of criticism”.  And I agree.  She also suggests Appreciation should be succinct, sincere and specific.  I do not believe in criticism.  I believe in appropriate challenge, which is done by discomforting the client’s worldview, checking for anxiety and offering psychological support (see The A to Z of OD: I is for Ice Cube Theory of Change).


There is Encouragement in the form of appreciating.  And then there is Encouragement in the form of emboldening, to spur others onto be more courageous.  Our role is to build courage to “go to the unexplored edge of ideas”.  “Courageous thinking needs freedom from pre-occupation with what others are thinking of our thinking.  It needs trust.  It needs Ease”.


Kline believes fear constricts thinking and allowing appropriate emotional release restores thinking.  This means change agents must tap into Feelings and I believe this is a core part of OD.  The act of making change work necessarily unlocks emotional, mental, physical and creative energy: the heart, mind, body and soul of our clients.


OD often surrounds generating a new understanding of our client’s situation.  The role of the helper is to balance challenge and support to jointly uncover this information, acting as a mirror to reflect information back to the client.

Kline suggests this information may include data such as facts and figures, but also includes the dismantling of denial, because “facing what you have been denying frees you to think clearly”.

I’m also reminded of Claes Janssen’s Four Rooms of Change (see OD Thought Leader Claes Janssen).  In the Denial room, the helper’s role is to give information and help the client into the Confusion Room.  Confusion is good because it generates choice, and choice liberates people.


Kline suggests the mind works best in the presence of reality and that reality is diverse.  She encourages thinking partners to encourage divergent thinking.  Important for successful OD.  People are diverse.  OD is humanistic.  if you believe in people, you’ll be just fine.

Incisive questions

Kline has a formulaic approach to constructing powerful questions to help people unlock their thinking.  Considered more generally, it is important for OD practitioners to consider the words they use carefully avoiding value-laden words and words that infer one has more (or indeed less) power then one’s client.  Remaining open and curious, assuming the ‘beginner’s mind’ and adopting the ’and’ stance (as in “and, what more is there to this?”) are good tips.


Kline recommends creating a physical environment that says to people, “You matter.”  When the physical environment affirms their importance, people think at their best.

Suggested reading: Nancy Kline (2015), More Time to Think, 2nd Ed., London, Octopus.


Next time: The A to Z of OD: L is for Leadership