Hi, I’m Dr Emma Jefferies a user researcher at HMRC Digital. As big advocates of working and learning together we wanted to understand how we could use empathy to improve collaborative behaviours and relationships amongst our teams and our programme sponsors. So we set up ‘The Empathy Experiments’ and this is how we got on.
What are The Empathy Experiments?
The experiments grew from the experience Alex Kean, Head of Product Management, and I gained when working on the Tax Credit Renewals Service, and we were curious to know if what we had learnt could be replicated across HMRC Digital. The idea was to help everyone learn from each other’s viewpoints to create greater empathy in the way we work together. We saw this as having the potential to strengthen team collaboration and, ultimately, lead to better services for our users.
Starting small we created a set of experiments that involved actively listening, reflecting on your cognitive bias, your emotional week, and fostering curiosity about others. We also created a group of volunteers to help deliver the experiments, our Empathy Ambassadors, who worked together to help shape and run the experiments.
The way we share and learn in an agile setting here is through our communities for different professions who meet regularly to share best practices. So, over the course of 6 weeks, we got each community to “try out” the experiments and provide feedback on what was learned at their next meeting. The Empathy Ambassadors captured insights and recorded their findings.
Our 8 lessons learned
1. When we practice active listening, we’re unassuming, we slow down, learn more and make better informed decisions
Our professional communities found that the ability to actively listen enabled them to challenge their assumptions, question the need to jump into a conversation, and allowed them to become more aware of the risks of decisions made with incomplete information.
When working in a fast paced environment it can be hard to take the time to actively listen. What people found is that when we get busy, our ability to actively listen decreases. However as one of the members of our community commented:
“I was surprised to see that if I slowed down and listened I achieved the same objective but learned more.”
One of our programme sponsors reflects on active listening, sharing:
“When talking with my manager, I bring my own assumptions to the conversation and talk a lot, and when I really listen I gain more.”
2. When we take time to be curious about other people and their lives, we’re opening ourselves up to change our assumptions leading to better informed outcomes
When we took time to be curious and listened to other people’s stories, it challenged the preconceived assumptions we came in with and helped us see that our assumptions were incorrect and/or incomplete. As part of the experiments and cross-team discovery, our programme sponsors and cross-digital teams came together to step into the shoes of a user researcher to identify the key life events in our users’ lives so we could create services to fit with people’s lives.
For example, for one user we had assumed that becoming self-employed was a major life event. However, it soon became clear that ill-health was the life event that led to becoming self-employed.
3. When we observe our bias, we’re taking the time to understand people without holding judgement and look outside of our service team
When we took the time to review our cognitive bias, we became aware we could sometimes be too quick to judge. Biases are hard to break but rewarding when you can. We also found that often in agile or service teams, we can become team-centric and develop a positive bias towards our own team or only get the same view from the same people. We don’t devote the necessary time to understanding the context of other teams and their needs.
4. When we track and review how we feel during the week, we are better able to understand how our feelings align with how the team feels and are able to respond to negative emotions
In tracking our emotions during one week, we found if we were in a good mood our team would share in our good mood, and when we were in a bad mood our team would also be affected by it. By keeping this in mind we became better able to deal with our emotions. We became aware how our mood influences our decision-making and how we acted. Some key comments of ‘tracking your emotional week’ experiment were:
“Sometimes you could see if you brought your emotional bags, and how you could address them.”
“It was helpful to have an emotional cheat sheet that helped me understand which emotion I was experiencing and how to best respond to the negative emotions. Feeling assured, that other people felt the same - knowing that I am not alone.”
5. When we practice empathy, we’re able to look beyond people's roles and grades, seeing them as people
As one of our Empathy Ambassadors shared:
“When people were sharing their experience of their involvement in The Empathy Experiments I started to see people as people.”
This lead to them feeling okay to go and approach another person beyond their grade.
6. When we practice empathy, we’re fostering self-awareness which changes how we interact with each other
Through the experience of practicing self-awareness in these experiments we were able to see a positive change in our own behaviours and interactions. One of participants commented:
“Now, I feel I don't have to have all the answers, I can work with people to find the answers. Before I may not have asked and assumed I knew the answer.”
When sharing experiences it became clear to participants very quickly they were not the only ones feeling a certain way. This lead to useful and honest conversations about our common challenges and how we can work better together as a professional community.
7. When we practice empathy, we get time back and save money
When we first started The Empathy Experiments there was reluctance as we were asking busy people to take time out of their day jobs. After the end of the study, one of the Empathy Ambassador reflected:
“If one less meeting happens because we're able to clarify a business need, we have saved money...we have met a user need because we have fully understood a user’s needs without making assumptions.”
8. We assume practicing empathy is hard, yet making small changes makes a huge difference in our interactions within and across teams
In summary, as one of our Empathy Ambassadors acknowledged:
“Improving our empathy skills is a personal challenge. However it does not take months to sharpen our skills - it takes days or weeks. Such small changes have a huge impact on how we work together.”
The Empathy Experiments have promoted more collaborative behaviours, fostered clarity, increased user focus, and raised awareness of how we can better work as one team. All of this helps us work better, saving both time and money. As we move forward we hope to further explore and share across the organisation.
Thank you for reading this post. If you work in government and want to know more about the experiments please do get in touch via the comments!