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Our World Needs Empathetic Intervention—Not Heroes

As the world battles big systemic challenges, input from many different perspectives, rather than a single view, will be key to creating meaningful change.

A young activist in Cape Town, South Africa, who had been deeply involved in student protests frequently marked by bitter conflict and controversy, one day found himself in the unexpected position of feeling empathy for those on the opposite side of the negotiating table.

A participant in the Systems Change and Social Impact Executive Education course at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, the activist had been engaging with a business case study on #FeesMustFall—the decolonization 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. While the traditional, century-old case method approaches material from a single protagonist’s point of view, this case presented the viewpoints of four different, and often contradictory, stakeholders.

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

For us, as conveners of this course, it was a breakthrough moment. We had for some time been experimenting with a new way of researching, writing, and presenting cases 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 business schools in developing nations have long wrestled with the fact that the majority of teaching cases presented around the world are about business problems in a global north context. These are often far removed from the realities of doing business in countries like South Africa, making instances of African agency invisible. In reaction to this discrepancy, the past decade has seen a flowering of new case material coming out of the continent that seeks 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 of promoting the idea of a single protagonist heroically sorting out the problem.

A single organization or individual with a narrow agenda, rigidly held, can do more harm than good.

This approach is rooted in an individualist storytelling culture centered on 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 alone. In fact, a single organization 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 in a collective to create change in how the system works. This cannot happen unless multiple actors and perspectives are brought to bear.

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 ourselves be invested in 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 help them experience this discomfort and strengthen their transformative capacity to work with it effectively. We have to walk a tightrope between discomfort with change and an openness to change. Shutting down is an all too common human response to complexity, and we increasingly see it at work in a polarized world where issues such as climate change and racial injustice seem to paralyze us rather than activate us.

So how can you get people to willingly stay with the discomfort, and turn toward 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 perceive 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, organizations, communities, and societies—enabling them 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 farther.

When people have empathy, they are not merely mirroring another’s emotional response but having 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 their own positions, 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 were 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 our interconnectedness and given us a glimpse of how we might approach some of these challenges together. But to bring about real and meaningful change, we need to make an active choice to develop our transformative muscle, individually and collectively.

Allowing ourselves and others to be more receptive 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, now crisis-stricken on so many levels, truly needs and deserves.


Headshot of Ncedisa Nkonyeni, social systems lead, Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Cape Town Graduate School of BusinessNcedisa Nkonyeni is the social systems lead at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa.

Headshot of Cynthia Rayner, senior researcher and case writer, Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Cape Town Graduate School of BusinessCynthia Rayner is a senior researcher and case writer at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa.