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Our world needs empathetic intervention - not heroes

22 October 2020

As the world battles big systemic challenges, it’s clear that no single person has the answer. Instead, companies, organisations and individuals need to look at processes informed by many different perspectives to point the way forward.


By Ncedisa Nkonyeni and Cynthia Rayner

On a hot summer’s day in Cape Town, a young activist who had been deeply involved in student protests frequently marked by bitter conflict and controversy, found himself in the unexpected position of feeling empathy for those who had been on the opposite side of the negotiating table.

A participant on the Systems Change and Social Impact Executive Education course at the UCT Graduate School of Business, he had been engaging with a business case study on #FeesMustFall – the decolonisation movement against restricted access to Higher Education in South Africa that laid bare some of the country’s most enduring systemic inequities –including racism, prejudice and privilege. But this was no ordinary case study. Rather than taking the traditional teaching case approach, a century-old method from the Harvard Law and Business schools that approaches material from a single protagonist’s point of view, the case presented the viewpoints of four different – and often contradictory – stakeholders.

This allowed the young activist to really see and understand another stakeholder’s motivations and accountabilities that had been previously hidden to him and had been difficult to consider, changing the way he viewed the issue.

For us, as convenors of this course, it was a breakthrough moment. We had, for some time, been experimenting with a new way of researching, writing and presenting teaching case material that captured something of the nuance and complexity that our participants would need to deal with in the real world. The response from this cohort gave us hope that maybe, we were onto something.

Academics at global South business schools have long wrestled with the fact that the majority of teaching cases taught around the world are about business problems in a global North context. These are often far removed from the realities of what it’s like to do business in countries like South Africa, while making invisible instances of African agency. In reaction to this, the past decade has seen a flowering of new case material coming out of the continent seeking to tell African stories and highlight local challenges and solutions. But while these cases have been invaluable in carving out a new perspective, they still have not strayed far from the Harvard blueprint, which essentially promotes the idea of a single protagonist whose role it is to heroically sort out the problem.

This approach is rooted in an individualist story-telling culture centred around strong and exceptional individuals. But its limitations are growing more apparent and have been more widely exposed by the COVID-19 crisis. The truth is that in complex systems, a single hero leader can’t bring about change on their own. In fact, a single organisation or individual with a narrow agenda, rigidly held, can do more harm than good. Systems are inherently about interconnections – as the pandemic has shown us – and they are often resistant to change. Shifting them is not about fixing a problem in isolation or about being right or wrong, but rather about coming together as collectives to nudge systems towards desired change in how the system works. This cannot happen unless multiple actors and perspectives are brought to bear.

So far so good. But the difficulty is that working in this way is, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. To work effectively in this space, people have to be prepared to unlearn old ways of being and try new ones. More than that, thinking systemically and working together requires us to actively let go of the things – be they ideas, structures, beliefs or institutions – that we may be invested in ourselves and to acknowledge that these may be the very things that are blocking change.

As facilitators, we are faced with the challenge of guiding co-learners to experience this discomfort and strengthen our transformative capacity to work with it effectively. We have to walk a tightrope between embracing discomfort and unease without turning people away. Shutting down is an all too common human response to complexity, and we increasingly see it at work in a polarised world where issues such as climate change and racial injustice seem to paralyse us rather than activate us.

So how can you get people to willingly stay with the discomfort, and turn towards each other in the challenges they are facing, engaging with new perspectives and exploring new possibilities for change?

Our young student may offer a glimpse of what is possible: empathy.

At the point, where thinking and feeling meet, empathy can emerge, allowing people to sense into an issue from another point of view, gaining a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of a problem’s complexity. But more than that, empathy is the glue that binds people together – in teams, organisations, communities and societies – keeping them together to drive systemic change. Empathy can give us the courage – and energy – to lean into the discomfort of the situation, and stay there, almost like stretching a muscle to allow it to move more and reach further. When people have empathy, they are not merely mirroring another’s emotional response, but have a rational comprehension of the emotions leading to certain feelings or points of view. When people engage in an empathetic manner, real communication can take place and a space is created to interrogate one’s own position, leading to genuine solution finding, compromise and new ways of doing.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, there were clear signs that the world’s current systems are inadequate to deal with the most pressing problems of our times. Climate change is accelerating and inequality is widening. The pandemic has made more visible the interconnectedness of things and given us a glimpse of how we might approach some of these challenges – but we need to make an active choice to develop our transformative muscle, individually and collectively, if we are to stand a chance of bringing about real and meaningful change.

Allowing ourselves and others to be more open to multiple points of view – no matter how hard it may be – opens the door to empathy, communication and the kinds of solutions that our world, crisis-stricken on so many levels, truly needs and deserves.

Ncedisa Nkonyeni is the Social Systems Lead at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business and convenor of the Bertha Centre’s Systems Change and Social Impact Executive Education course. Cynthia Rayner is a senior researcher and case writer at the Bertha Centre. The two collaborated in the development of three novel business case studies and were invited by the North American Case Research Association to present their ideas at the 2020 conference programme in October.