Cultivating empathy in academic collaborations

KamounLab
6 min readJun 26, 2023

“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” — Roger Ebert

This post was inspired by behavior I witnessed a few days ago at the conference hotel I was staying at. You know those moments when you courteously wait for people to get on the elevator, only to have them cut ahead of you at the busy checkout counter. Reflecting on this incident, I thought again about the importance of small gestures in our daily interactions. It reminded me of the significance of expressing gratitude, thinking about the people around us and the need to avoid unnecessary rushes.

The Importance of empathy. Watch the video.

Rushing and not expressing gratitude can reflect a lack of empathy. Empathy involves understanding and considering the feelings and experiences of others. When we rush without regard for those around us, we disregard their potential needs or desire for a smooth experience. Similarly, neglecting to say thank you can be seen as a failure to recognize and appreciate the efforts or kindness of others. Demonstrating empathy by being patient, considerate, and expressing gratitude helps foster positive interactions and creates a more compassionate and harmonious environment for everyone involved.

I must admit that patience is not my strongest suit, and I tend to be direct in my interactions with others. Therefore, it is with a tinge of guilt that I write these words. In academic and other scientific collaborations, rushing through tasks and failing to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of others can indicate a lack of empathy, hindering effective teamwork and diminishing the overall success of the collaborative effort.

When academics collaborate. Watch the clip.

For successful and smooth scientific collaborations, it is crucial to go through the exercise of considering the benefits for all parties involved and ensuring that you deliver on those commitments. What’s in it for your collaborator? Are you helping them achieve their goals? Collaborations falter when one party becomes excessively self-centered, neglecting the interests and needs of others. It’s important to avoid a “me, me, me” mindset and instead foster a collaborative environment that values mutual respect, shared goals, and equitable contributions.

Whether it’s hotel etiquette or scientific research, there are certain unspoken rules that make everyone’s experience more pleasant. From being courteous to expressing gratitude and efficiently performing tasks, these small gestures can significantly enhance interactions and collaborations.

This, in my opinion, is what makes academic collaborations frictionless and succesful:

  1. Empathy: Empathy is perhaps what best defines human civilization. A successful scientific collaboration thrives on empathy, where each collaborator genuinely understands and appreciates the perspectives, expertise, and goals of others. Taking the time to listen, empathize, and consider the emotions and experiences of your collaborators fosters trust, respect, and effective communication.
  2. Shared Vision: Collaborators should align on a shared vision or goal for the project. By collectively defining the purpose and desired outcomes, everyone can work together towards a common objective. This shared understanding helps in cultivating empathy and ensures that each collaborator’s contributions are geared towards achieving a mutually beneficial outcome.
  3. Clear Communication: Effective and open communication is key to a smooth scientific collaboration. By openly discussing expectations, sharing progress updates, and actively listening to one another, collaborators can establish clear lines of communication. Regularly checking in and providing constructive feedback enhances understanding and minimizes misunderstandings or conflicts.
  4. Mutual Benefit: Successful collaborations involve considering what’s in it for your collaborator. Recognize and appreciate the unique skills, resources, and perspectives each collaborator brings to the table. Actively seek opportunities to support and uplift your collaborators, ensuring that their interests, needs, and professional growth are considered throughout the collaboration.
  5. Complementarity in Expertise: This forms the backbone of successful academic collaborations, creating a synergistic environment where the strengths of one participant balance the weaknesses of another. Different skill sets, knowledge bases, and perspectives converge, fostering innovation and driving deeper insights into research questions. This seamless integration of diverse expertise not only amplifies the collective intelligence but also streamlines workflows, reducing potential friction points. It enables the team to tackle complex problems more efficiently and effectively, ultimately leading to groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in their field.
  6. Equitable Contributions: A successful collaboration values equitable contributions from all parties involved. Each collaborator should have a fair and meaningful role within the project, allowing their expertise and insights to shine. By distributing responsibilities, acknowledging individual strengths, and valuing diverse contributions, collaborations can achieve more robust and comprehensive outcomes.
  7. Problem-Solving Orientation: Challenges and setbacks are an inherent part of any scientific collaboration. Approaching these obstacles with a problem-solving mindset, rather than assigning blame, fosters a supportive and empathetic environment. Collaborators who empathize with one another during challenging times can work together to find innovative solutions and overcome obstacles.
  8. Respect and Appreciation: Respect and appreciation form the foundation of a successful collaboration. Recognize and acknowledge the efforts, contributions, and achievements of your collaborators. Express gratitude and celebrate milestones together. By fostering a culture of respect and appreciation, collaborators feel valued and motivated to continue working together towards shared success.

Let’s keep in mind the goal of creating a trusted network of colleagues and fostering successful collaborations with our peers. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be easier said than done. Sociopaths — essentially self-centered people lacking empathy — are found in academia just as they are in society at large. These individuals, primarily focused on their own interests and demonstrating a lack of understanding or consideration for others’ feelings and experiences, are best avoided as collaborators and in other capacities. Learn to spot them, it’s easier than one might think. The challenge arises when we fail to address their behavior effectively, often tolerating their actions and allowing them to inflict harm. Therefore, finding ways to handle such individuals within academic settings is critical for ensuring a safe and supportive environment for all.

I encourage you to reflect on the “Seven Principles to Accelerate Research Culture Change in the UK” proposed by Jackie Hunter in 2021. Point 7 stands out as it emphasizes arguably the biggest challenge in academia:

There is evidence that the current governance statutes in some universities and research institutions can protect senior academics even in serious cases of bullying and harassment. The governing boards of institutions should ensure that there are no constraints on an institution imposing appropriate sanctions, including loss of employment, on proven bullying and harassment at any level.

Efforts to reform #ResearchCulture continue, perhaps at a pace slower than many of us would desire. Nevertheless, these challenges should only galvanize everyone’s determination to improve conduct. Bear in mind, empathy and consideration for your collaborator’s interests are essential elements in fostering successful and harmonious scientific collaborations. By nurturing these traits, collaborations can flourish, leading to a fulfilling journey of significant discoveries and advancements in scientific research.

Acknowledgements

This post was written with assistance from ChatGPT. I dedicate the article, in an unusual way, to the bullies and other individuals with sociopathic tendencies I’ve encountered in my life and work, as they have inspired this post.

This article is available on a CC-BY license via Zenodo. Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2023) Cultivating empathy in academic collaborations. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8079563

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KamounLab

Biologist; passionate about science, plant pathogens, genomics, and evolution; open science advocate; loves travel, food, and sports; nomad and hunter-gatherer.