Thinking about Compassion

Compassion. That seems to be a word that is much in the air around me recently. I alluded to it in a recent post in the context of the need for self-control, but have discussed it more extensively in the past on this blog. Compassion is all too often absent in academia where competition, one-upmanship and self-importance can rule the roost. It was therefore heartening recently, when participating in a discussion about the challenges facing leaders in different sectors over the next 25 years as part of the Møller’s Centre’s 25th Anniversary celebrations (the Møller Centre is attached to Churchill College and specialises in Executive Training including in Leadership), to hear compassion given prominence. The panel involved highly experienced leaders from very different spheres including Lord Alderdice (a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process) and former Danish Ambassador Claus Grube amongst others. One of the panel members is a regular contributor to the Møller Centre programmes, Ruth Berry, and she identified a key ingredient in leadership as being compassion.

Without compassion she clearly felt that leaders could not lead effectively in taking their teams forward through difficult times. And, in her mind, there is no doubt that the present turbulent and uncertain times are difficult. If people are frightened they cannot do their jobs to the best of their ability. If they fear being bullied they will not take risks to deliver bigger outcomes. It makes perfect sense, but I fear some of our academic colleagues have not thought of things in this way. It is easy to be misled into thinking slave-driving is the way to get the most out of, for instance, PhD students. People such as the group leader who complains if students are not at the bench before 8am or dare to leave before 9pm: such people exist. Perhaps they themselves thrived on such a lifestyle and do not realise that it doesn’t work for everyone.  For some people some of the time it may be the right thing to do, but it should never be imposed at risk of ‘punishment’ if not delivered. Punishment in this context could mean exclusion from a paper’s author list or no opportunity to present their work – even if it really is their work. It happens, I fear far too often.

At every stage in the professional hierarchy such non-compassionate behaviour can be perceived, closely allied to what I imprecisely refer to as the ‘mine’s bigger’ school of doing science. The couple of professors I heard recently boasting of how they had ‘turned down jobs at Princeton’ over the dinner table; was this a form of intimidation and/or just a reflection of their own self-doubt? The professor in another University who claimed his office was larger than his very own Vice Chancellor’s – a literal form of ‘mine’s bigger’: what message was he trying to brainwash me with subliminally? Or how about the professor who demanded certain ‘rights’ for his group from the head of the department, making life difficult for others around him, only for it to transpire these rights were never needed or used. These tactics are unhelpful and destructive to those around; such people are not likely to be compassionate towards the student struggling with their own insecurities (not least because I sneakily believe such professorial behaviour is closely allied to insecurities of their own). No, they are more likely to be the ones requiring the student to be metaphorically chained to the bench so that their own h index can be inflated or their grant income multiplied.

Athena Swan is one strand in trying to eradicate this culture of the jerks. You know a department hasn’t got it right when a female staff member bursts into tears when trying to describe what her work environment is like. You know things are astray when the students from different groups don’t mix and there is no way to break the silos down. Obtaining an Athena Swan award mustn’t simply be about improving the statistics relating to numbers of women in the department at every level (although women not sticking around may be a bad indicator); it needs to address a far more fundamental cultural shift in the work environment for everyone. I have yet to come across a department that offers training in compassion, or seminars on how to avoid self-aggrandisement. I am not even sure business leadership training verges into such territory, but perhaps the office party would be a good moment for party games to mock the egotistical and slave-driver professor so that they face up to their own misdemeanours, for the good of all around.

As Research Councils get more serious about diversity issues – note the recent call from the EPSRC for innovative programmes to embed and research the issues about inclusion and diversity in its broadest sense – maybe departments will realise, even if only because of self-interest – that training in many aspects of self-awareness (unconscious bias being an obvious example, but what I allude to above cover many other manifestations) is vital for their department’s health, wealth and well-being.

Note added 3-11-17: More about the Møller Centre’s 25th Anniversary celebrations can be found here.

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