The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Empathy: why care?

Empathy: why care?


Does empathy need a business case?

Why changing the structures, not the people, can help make more room for empathy in our working lives. And why, business case or not, we should care.


The irritating hurdle you must jump to convince people that you really do care, when you just want to get the job done.

No, this isn’t how I think we see, and feel, empathy. Very few people, I would imagine, will tell you that empathy is a bad thing. Too much, that might be tricky, but as a principle it’s a good one.

Having worked in higher education for a while now, my hunch is that we all, in some form and at some time or another, practise this in our working lives. But we can always, and should strive to, do more.


Because over the course of our lives, we spend more time at work – some claim 50 years or so – than we do with our family and friends. This is one of the biggest commitments of our time and energy that we will ever make.

We need to make this time count.

These 50-odd years are the business case for why we need empathy. We need to make this time count. And we can do this by bringing deeper meaning and greater empathy for one another into the workplace.

For universities, I’d argue that the business case is even greater. Millennials and Gen Z – who represent a growing number of our colleagues, as well as some of our current students – are more driven by social impact and purpose than previous generations. Almost uniquely, higher education has a natural alignment with this sense of purpose, seeking to make positive impact in the use and application of human knowledge.

In three years’ time Millennials alone will make up 50% of the workforce in higher education. This generational drive toward finding greater meaning will force us to confront these questions and have our answers ready: how do we practise empathy between us, and how do we apply this to a greater, altruistic, purpose?

Changing the system, not the people

I came to think more about empathy whilst attending a keynote speech by Belinda Parmar OBE, CEO of The Empathy Business.

Belinda spoke passionately. The ideas she unravelled were simple, but powerful. I took to heart that empathy is about saying “we’re in this together”. It’s about being accountable to one another, not sympathetic to a problem or wo.

…it’s often the structures and culture that we wrap around our work that deliver the devastating blows to empathy.

We’re all capable of empathy. However it’s often the structures and culture that we wrap around our work that deliver the devastating blows to empathy. Cultures of complicity, passive aggressiveness or at their worst, open hostility. Structures that allow us to avoid each other, that put process over people, or that are created to divide and keep people apart, rather than together. These are what break down people’s natural empathetic values. Empathy is about “changing the system”, not the people.

Take email as an example. Emails allow us to distance ourselves. They allow us to cop out of active listening, to preserve our work persona and put forward unassailable points of view without the need to talk to, or interact with, another person.

That said, emails are an important way of communicating and connecting with colleagues, and we would be hard pushed to do without them. Finding a way to break through and do these differently – using time and space to write with humanity – is key.

How do you channel more empathy?

Remove the things that divide and find the things that unite.

Empathy begins with simple acts. These simple acts, when added together tally up to nurturing a culture that lives and breathes the values that sit hand in hand with empathy – trust, resilience, openness.

Look at collective empathy, collective success”, advises Belinda. Cultivate a collective sense of purpose and understanding amongst your team, colleagues and department. Find the narrative that connects and endures, beyond business politics or differences of opinions.

Remove the things that divide and find the things that unite: the language you use, the labels you choose, the way you meet and communicate, and the amount of time you spend talking versus listening.

Belinda advises that you might also measure the time taken to listen to a problem before jumping to a solution (that hurdle again), the time more senior people spend talking in meetings versus more junior colleagues, and the time spent on business politics as opposed to work.

Recognising empathy

…how can I bring more of this to work, every day, for myself and the people I work with?

I mentioned earlier that I had a hunch that we all practice empathy in some way in higher education, so I want to leave you with some of the ways I’ve seen this.

I’ve seen this play out in communities such as #phdlife and #LDInsight on Twitter. I’ve heard it in my calls with our clients and friends, who share their stories and insights. I’ve seen it in blogs like Patter, that share advice and expertise for free. I experience it at conferences and in communities such as the Staff Development Forum, who readily share best practice. Finally I feel it in my own working relationship with colleagues and my mentor.

I urge you to consider how you see, feel and experience empathy in your work, and to ask yourself: how can I bring more of this to work, every day, for myself and the people I work with?

Further Reading

Empathy is not for wimps, it is for survival‘, an article by Belinda Parmar published in the Financial Times.

Deloitte’s millennial survey

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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