David Williams has been the Principal Youth Officer at Torfaen Youth Service for six years and has taken a compassionate approach to leadership, which he refers to as ‘servant hearted leadership’. This approach has yielded success in the well-being and professional learning of staff. This relational approach to leadership has built a compassionate culture focussed on well-being within Torfaen Youth Service. Below David shares how Torfaen Youth Service have developed a culture which is centred on supporting all learners and mindful of well-being.
There are a few key principles that underpinned the foundation and then growth of the Torfaen Youth Service culture that exists today. The first being that the environment we want young people to experience must be modelled throughout the whole team. Young people need to feel accepted, safe, free to take risk, confident to speak their mind and above all know that they are loved and appreciated. Both Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the P&3Rs model (protect, relate, regulate and reflect) provides the evidence base for this approach. For the team this means we focus on role not status, anyone can challenge anyone. We spend a lot of time nurturing and growing relationships with one another in person. A few helpful phrases to keep us on track are ‘connect before you correct’. We don’t look to correct each other in this sense but before we can correct practice, take challenge and criticise we need to know that we are there for each other, standing compassionately with one another and care about one another, after all ‘you can’t deliver a ten-tonne truth over a one-tonne bridge’.
Building on individual and team strengths while covering one another’s weaknesses creates an environment that encourages growth and excellence as well as empathy and support. By focusing on building and working to our strengths and being honest about our weaknesses we create an environment that helps to ensure we fan into flame the amazing talented people in the team and demonstrate our humanity by being fallible and accepting help. We create an environment that enables us to be self-aware, identifying areas in which we need to improve and the ability to reach out to others when we are struggling. This keeps staff motivated and is based on the self determination theory of relatedness, autonomy, and competence. Staff feel connected, have a feeling of control over their work and a focus on individuals’ strengths.
A compassionate approach is what we naturally do as Youth Workers when working with young people. We are patient, tolerant and understanding with young people, opening ourselves up to vulnerability to empathise with them. This is not always the case when we are dealing with colleagues. First and foremost, developing a compassionate culture comes from the top, with leadership in the service having to set the tone and model this approach.
Torfaen Youth Service has a compassionate culture which is modelled from the service manager. The results of this approach are that there are high levels of trust from the staff with each other. There is a shared vulnerability across the team with staff supported where they are at, just like we do with young people. This approach is based on epistemic trust and mentalisation, which leads individuals feeling validated and open to new experiences. We will carry staff when they are at their lowest because we know that in return, they operate at a higher performance level when they are at their peak.
The impact that David’s approach has had on the team is intangible. There is a fierce loyalty towards David and a sense of security, trust and love that emanates from him to the team. The psychologically safe space he has created allows staff to be creative with their learning and risks and mistakes are part of the process.
External feedback has been excellent. In 2022, Torfaen Youth Service renewed their Bronze and Silver Quality Youth Work Mark and gained the Gold Quality Mark for Youth Work for the first time, with remarks to the service being sector leading. This was reinforced with a glowing Estyn inspection. David also received individual recognition for his commitment to leadership, Youth Work and Young People with a National Youth Work Award for Leadership.