Ideas to build an impact community
Idea 1: Create a compassion culture
Most of us have at some point experienced empathy and compassion from colleagues when we have reached some kind of crisis in work. Being seen and emotionally held by our colleagues when things are going wrong can enable us to deal more effectively with stressful situations, compared to feeling judged or abandoned by those around us in our time of need. Creating a compassion culture goes beyond being empathic. Empathy feels with the person in need, but compassion compels action to help the person. As Dalai Lama XIV put it:
“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business. It is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability; it is essential for human survival.”
An unmet need does not just have to be some form of suffering. It could be that you recognise the unmet potential in a colleague and offer to coach them or help them find training opportunities to grow into that part of themselves that you have sensed needs to grow. Research has shown that those who experience compassion at work are more likely to feel emotionally committed to their organisation, demonstrate compassion in turn to others and feel more psychologically connected to their co-workers (see Poorkavoos’s 2016 booklet in further reading for a brief summary of these studies).
The problem is that it is often hard to experience empathy or compassion for people who we perceive are very different to us. There is a well known “empathy bias” where we find it easier to put ourselves in the shoes of people who are similar to us, or who are good communicators, friendly and/or outgoing. The growing pressure that many researchers are under also makes it hard to take the time to notice when colleagues are suffering, and more likely to blame others when things go wrong.
To create a compassion culture, we need to start with self-compassion, which is arguably the hardest challenge. Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Texas suggests self-compassion has three components: 1) being kind to yourself when you fail rather than being harshly self-critical; 2) seeing negative experiences as part of the larger experience of what it is to be human, rather than seeing them as only happening to you, or as separating or isolating your from others; and 3) holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness, at a sufficient emotional distance to avoid over-identifying with them. Dr Neff developed Mindful Self-Compassion as a method for increasing self-compassion in collaboration with Dr Christopher Germer, and a randomised controlled trial showed that it was associated with decreasing stress, anxiety and depression. Relaxation and meditation techniques are also effective ways of cultivating self-compassion, and structured reflection via cognitive behavioural therapy or reflective journals can help people learn from and positively reframe experiences that would otherwise lead to self-criticism.
From a foundation of self-compassion, it is possible to build a more compassionate culture in your team or organisation. A good starting point is to assess your current levels of personal compassion, so you can have a professionally facilitated discussion based on your anonymised answers as a team. For example, you might rate yourself on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always) for the following questions. Complete this quiz and check your answers using the scoring process.
If you are highly compassionate, you would expect high scores across for questions 1-3, 7-9 and 14 and low scores for questions 4-6 and 10-13. If you do this as a team and achieve high scores for these questions, this indicates that you have a compassionate culture. If your culture is not compassionate, then you would expect the reverse.
A discussion about issues like this takes careful framing and facilitation, especially if you think you have a mix of people with very different perspectives on compassion. This is why I would always recommend having such a discussion with a professional facilitator with clear ground rules to minimise any likelihood of further emotional damage if there are individuals in the group who are far from compassionate. Summarising some of the research on the benefits of compassion in the workplace, as I have done in Impact Culture, is a good way of framing the discussion once you have the survey results. There will be some who believe firmly in “tough love” and the power of fear or shame to drive action. While you are unlikely to change the deeply held values that drive these approaches to interpersonal interaction, through discussion and with support (in word and deed) from leaders, it is possible for such a discussion to create a new and powerful group norm. Over time, such norms become self-reinforcing, creating a new team dynamic and atmosphere, attracting others to the team who share your compassionate approach, increasingly outnumbering those who are uncompassionate.
From: Reed MS (2022) Impact Culture, Fast Track Impact.
There are a number of other interventions that have been designed to cultivate compassion in the workplace. Here are four that you might want to try out:
A range of training courses have been developed to guide such work, for example Compassion Cultivation Training and Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (see the appendices in Poorkavoos’s booklet in further reading for examples of courses and the questionnaire that inspired my questions above). Many of the available courses include meditation practices, both to generate self-compassion and compassion for others. I have found guided meditation particularly useful to find empathy and compassion for those who are hurting me. The last time I encountered workplace bullying, in addition to raising the issue with my manager and following a formal process, I survived that process emotionally by meditating on the person who was bullying me on a daily basis, to find the empathy I needed to combat my anger and the perspective I needed to combat the fear I was feeling every day. Instead of allowing those negative feelings to consume me, I was able to understand why this person was acting the way they were, and have enough compassion for myself to stop beating myself up for feeling so afraid and upset all the time.
Some courses on compassion also include experiential learning in which participants experiment with “acts of kindness” towards others. A 2010 study published in PNAS by Professors James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis found that acts of kindness spread from person to person through social networks, creating a ripple effect in which one act of kindness perpetuates other co-operative acts among the recipients of kindness. They showed that this ripple of kindness spread from these recipients to those who they were kind to, than then again from these people to their contacts. A single act of kindness to one person leads to three other people deciding to do kind things. But the effect isn’t just a trebling of kindness, because the research also showed that the effect lasted over time, with the recipient of each act of kindness continuing to repay that act of kindness to multiple other people in their network over time. Even if you are unable to change the systems that are generating the stress and overload that make it hard to find time to empathise with others or be compassionate, it is possible to start a compassion culture with a single act. So, if you want to try and create a culture of compassion in your organisation you can try this experiment designed by Dr David R. Hamilton. Here are the ground rules in his own words: “1) You must do something different every day. You can do the same thing on two different days if you want, but it only counts the first time. 2) You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone at least once. In other words, you have to do an act of kindness that stretches you a bit. 3) At least one of your acts of kindness must be completely anonymous. No one must know that it was you who did it, or what you did. You can’t tell anyone about it.”
As a leader you might want to cultivate compassion by connecting more deeply with colleagues on a one-to-one basis in order to more effectively empathise with the kinds of challenges faced by your colleagues. This takes time, not only because it needs to be done one-to-one, but because to develop enough trust to actually hear what is really going on, it may require multiple sessions. As a result, many leaders only invest in this sort of strategy with others who are leading beneath them in the hierarchy, but this assumes that these other leaders are actually connected to their colleagues sufficiently to hear what life is like for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. As a result, you may want to find reasons to reach out to colleagues at different levels in the organisation, for example based on shared research interests, so that you are able to make these deeper connections with people who do not hold leadership positions. Of course, the point of compassion is to act on what you discover as you open those channels of empathy. While you cannot be sure that others will be experiencing similar difficulties, actions based on a deep understanding of a handful of colleagues are more likely to meet the needs of the wider team than actions that are not informed in this way.
One final intervention you might want to try is to run a seminar series on lessons from failure. While it is important to share success, and discuss our latest findings, it is also important that we learn from our mistakes and enable others to learn from what went wrong as well as what went right. Of course, at the same time, you are also normalising failure and giving people permission to talk about failure and support each other in this inevitable part of academic life. Fear of failure drives conservative, incremental research, and prevents people taking that calculated risks that are often necessary to achieve major breakthroughs. By not talking about failure, we can inadvertently drive imposter syndrome, because it appears that everyone else succeeds at everything they put their mind to, and you are the only person who ever fails. This is likely to be most effective if you start the series by talking to senior members of staff about the deeper reasons for asking them to talk about their failures, so that those who are revered for their well-known career successes can share the mistakes that paved their pathway to success, showing that none of us are immune to failure, and giving permission to others to share their own stories as the series unfolds. There doesn’t have to be a happy and successful ending to each seminar, but it is important to retain a focus on lessons learned, if you want to create a culture in which failure becomes seen as something people can learn from, rather than something to be avoided or hidden. You may even want to run the series in a more participatory format, giving participants the opportunity to discuss what they learned from the presentation in small groups before running your plenary question and answer session.
Idea 2: Experiment with more creative stakeholder engagement initiatives
The most common engagement mechanism I see at every scale is the stakeholder advisory panel, steering group and non-executive board member. These structures are most commonly seen in research projects, but many departments and centres also engage stakeholders formally in this way too, and can gain invaluable advice that keeps them connected to the needs and challenges beyond the academy. The problem is that these groups are often misused, to listen to presentations and read progress reports, or to rubber stamp and legitimise decisions that have already been made by researchers. This is not just ethically questionable; it is a massive wasted opportunity. If stakeholders are engaged in the design of the project, centre or strategy plan they will be advising you on, you are much more likely to deliver relevant research that makes a difference, and they are likely to feel a much stronger sense of ownership over the work you do together. Consider writing a Terms of Reference document with your advisors so everyone knows the role they are playing in the research (you can see an example of this from one of my projects in the resources section of the Fast Track Impact website), and ensure that a key part of these terms and each meeting with them is simply in listening mode, not just getting feedback on your work, but seeking to understand the challenges they and others like them are facing, and the challenges and opportunities that they are anticipating, which you might be able to contribute towards. If you want to do truly co-productive research, then you will need to go way beyond a stakeholder advisory group, and I’ll come to that later in the book, but for many of us, setting something like this up is a great start.
A number of Universities have focussed on developing platforms that enable them to engage with the public at scale, for example running citizen science programmes, such as the Planet Hunters programme run by Yale University with Zooniverse, University of Reading’s Solar Stormwatch, or the Kilonova-catcher programme run by University of Paris and Paris-Saclay University.
Science Shops started in the Netherlands in the 1970s and are increasingly popular across continental Europe. Science shops are typically organised by Universities or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and are sometimes a collaboration between both types of institution. Whether they are “pop-up” shops or permanent, but they provide a space for people to ask questions and bring challenges that the organisation might be able to help solve. Many shops are targeted at specific sectors or issues, and in Universities they are often linked to teaching, enabling students to do community-based research as part of their curriculum. Take a look at the Living Knowledge science shop network to learn more about this model.
There are now a number of online platforms creating connections between Universities and different sectors. For example, Konfer helps UK small to medium sized enterprises connect with University researchers to solve problems or develop new products and services via typically low value, short-term contracts. The tool is now increasingly being used by charities and Governments to access research expertise. Although more reactive, most Universities now have external directories of experts. Although typically developed by press offices to enable the media to find experts for interviews, these databases can in theory also be used by non-academic organisations to find experts too.
Many Universities encourage their researchers to do secondments with organisations linked to their work, take part in shadowing schemes or take on non-executive directorships. Many also encourage people from NGOs, government and business to work with the University in similar ways, for example via visiting roles. Some, like the University of West of England Bristol, have established mechanisms to actively promote such opportunities to their own staff and their strategic partners.
Finally, it is important not to forget that the tools of modern marketing can be used to directly connect researchers and stakeholders, allowing two-way conversations to flourish and relationships to grow. As Director of Research Marketing and Communications at the University of Melbourne, Dr Rachel Nowak took a multi-pronged approach to building the University’s capacity to use communications and marketing to assist research translation. She encouraged academic researchers to view marketing as an essential tool in the research translation kit, rather than a means to “sell” research – the latter being an out-dated connotation that was distasteful to many. She advocated for University communications and marketing to broaden from an activity that was predominantly about recruiting students to one that also worked to enable research translation and partnerships. This meant acknowledging that the return on marketing investment would be different, and slower. It also meant recognising that focusing exclusively on research. Breakthroughs and successes (the sort of thing that makes a good press release) might help build the University’s reputation, but would do little to help potential end-users of the research understand how they could partner with the University or benefit from its research. That would require a different type of communication via different channels.
To help this happen, she recruited specialist research writers with a deep knowledge of research and research translation, often including a PhD. They co-produced content with academic researchers that explained how different types of research, approaches and capabilities might be used by people outside of the academy. All content was run through a Flesch Kincaid readability measure (available in Microsoft Word) to ensure “plain language” standards were met – essential for sharing research knowledge with non-academics. To further remove barriers to knowledge sharing, jargon, and the use of superfluous words and marketing speak such as “cutting edge” and “world leading” was eliminated from research marketing content.
She also advocated for the more extensive use of Business-to-Business marketing or B2B. Traditional consumer marketing is typically aimed at large numbers of people (prospective students, say), where each person is individually responsible for the decision to acquire a product, that person knows roughly what they want, and is selecting from different options in the same category. B2B marketing is more personal, and more suitable for a product or service that is highly tailored for an individual customer – such as a research program that is co-designed to address a specific problem. In B2B marketing, decisions to engage typically involves complex decision-making (a committee, for example). It relies on exchange of information to allow customers to work out what they need and how a research activity might benefit them. And it makes use of Customer Relationship Management software, webinars, events, websites, and social media channels such as LinkedIn. If you want more on the role of social marketing, have a look at my impact-driven social media strategy template in the resources section of the Fast Track Impact website.
Idea 3: Create boundary organisations
A growing number of Universities are investing in “boundary organisations” such as policy units and enterprise hubs, which are designed to sit between the University and a particular sector or set of networks to stimulate productive interactions. For example, Griffith University has a Policy Innovation Hub with a podcast offering in-depth political analysis by researchers on the issues of the day, an internship programme and a Regional Innovation Data Lab, to enable citizens, policy-makers, industries and researchers to use and share data on key trends and issues. At Newcastle University, we have a Policy Academy, which also has a training and mentoring function, with an intake of fellows each year who undertake an intensive training programme and visit Parliament.
One role of such organisations is to organise and resource engagement with consultations and inquiries to ensure the voice of the University’s researchers is regularly heard. When successful however, they facilitate lasting relationships between members of the research and policy communities. One of the benefits of creating these relationships through a boundary organisation is the ability to sustain engagement between institutions and build trust over time despite the fact that there is often significant staff turnover. Individual researchers can rarely keep pace with the changes in staff in the organisations they work with, but if there is a dedicated team with the ability to remain more consistently engaged, who can connect researchers to the right people, this can be more efficient for both researchers and policy-makers.
For large Universities, it can be useful to focus on core themes where there is critical mass, so you can build a clear identity and reputation in these areas. For example, the N8 group of Universities in the north of England have joined together to create a Food Systems Policy Hub, pooling expertise in an area where they collectively have significant critical mass. There are wider larger pooling initiatives as well, for example the UK’s Universities Policy Engagement Network is a community of UK universities seeking to deliver evidence into policy, offering a dedicated contact point for policymakers, and a collective response to requests for evidence.
One of the most successful such organisations I’ve reviewed, in a 2019 paper with Anita Wreford and colleagues, is ClimateXChange, a collaboration between Scottish Government, the research institutes it part-funds and Universities across Scotland. There are many reasons why this initiative has been so successful, which you can read about in the paper, but two in particular stand out to me. ClimateXChange pulls research into policy in a targeted way when it is needed rather than pushing research using rapid response “call down” requests alongside a programme of longer-term, strategic research. It has also created a single point of contact through which Universities can engage with Government, and because ClimateXChange is resourced to play this role, it has been able to invest in building social capital and connections so that it is well known and trusted by Government, despite the fact that the evidence and policy analysts, and politicians they work with regularly changing.
Idea 4: Co-produce events with your non-academic partners
Universities now regularly fund and organise regular public engagement festivals, fairs and other programmes of events. The best of these were co-produced with their local communities, for example see the analysis my colleagues and I published in Research for All of Queen Mary University of London’s Festival of Communities, which they developed in collaboration with local community organisations to build closer ties with the communities located around their campus in Tower Hamlets. University of Nottingham’s Institute for Policy and Engagement runs an annual community event they call Wonder and an annual family event called Science in the Park alongside regular policy briefings and events.
It may be possible to maintain engagement between annual events like this with a monthly seminar series or “science cafe” on an impactful theme, working with stakeholders to propose topics they would like to be covered in future. For example, Professor Sally Shortall successfully built the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series with the Northern Ireland Assembly and a collective of Northern Irish Universities, before successfully exporting the model to the north of England, where she co-developed a series with local Government partners. In each case, members of devolved or local Government set the agenda based on policy needs, and calls for contributions were circulated to academics, who often created policy briefs to accompany their seminar talks. Universities often seek kinds of partnerships with civic institutions in their local region. For example, Ghent University and others focussed on building partnerships with schools, museums and science centres, running regular programmes of events in collaboration with each of these groups.
Alternatively, instead of always seeking new collaborations, you might want to focus on working in new ways with existing partnerships, to identify new research questions and fund projects that could meet their needs and challenges. This is often done via Business Development Managers who work as a single point of contact for both organisations. An alternative approach is to run innovation events with different sectors around different themes, typically organised by a relevant Centre or interdisciplinary challenge theme in the University who can follow up the ideas generated. One might be for local government on sustainable procurement, while another might be for third sector organisations working on obesity. Over the last few years, I worked with N8 AgriFood, a collaboration between eight Universities in the north of England, to design and run many such events. They typically start with presentations on the state of the art from both the academics and the non-academic partners, followed by participatory idea generation and discussion activities, to identify impact goals, work out what knowledge already exists or might be needed, and identify pathways to impact and concrete actions that organisers can follow up.