Our world needs empathetic intervention — not heroes

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.

He had been working on a business case study about the #FeesMustFall movement. But, this was no ordinary case study. Rather than taking the traditional approach, a century-old method from the Harvard law and business schools which uses 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 person’s motivations and accountabilities that had been previously hidden to him and had been difficult to consider. It changed the way he viewed the issue.

For us, as convenors of the Systems Change and Social Impact executive education 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 on to 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 such as 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 storytelling 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. 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 we have 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 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, grappling 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. 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, they have a rational comprehension of the emotions leading to certain feelings or points of view. This is when real communication and interrogation of one’s own position can take place, leading to a genuine solution.

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.

Ncedisa Nkonyeni  and Cynthia Rayner are from the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business

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Ncedisa Nkonyeni
Ncedisa Nkonyeni is from the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business
Cynthia Rayner
Cynthia Rayner is from the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business

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