What’s love got to do with it?
In academia, the answer to this question is often, “not a lot”. But university leaders need to remember the heart as well as the head in building and nurturing their communities. And that includes measuring and rewarding the right things.
To feel happy at work, we need to be appreciated. We want to be seen and noticed, and know that our efforts make a difference to other people’s lives. After all, what could be better than to contribute to truly changing the world through research and education?
While, on the face of it, universities are amazing places to work, I believe we have unwittingly lost some of the ability to provide that sense of connection and recognition everybody craves. This is borne out through survey after survey, which frequently suggest many of our colleagues feel overwhelmed, disgruntled and unhappy. High levels of anxiety and stress and low levels of agency and belonging are consistent themes.
So where did we go wrong? To cut right to the chase: I think university leaders have forgotten the importance of matters of the heart. I would dare say that we have forgotten the importance of making members of our communities feel loved.
“We are frequently led by the belief that in the quest for evidence-based truths, feelings will only get in the way of what is important.”
I must admit that I hesitate to use the word “love” in a blog about academia, for fear of alienating readers and sounding overly focused on the spiritual or emotional. But if my 10 years of university leadership have taught me anything, it is that in our work, academics are too often ignoring the basic human desire to belong and to be recognised. Instead, we are frequently led by the belief that in the quest for evidence-based truths, feelings will only get in the way of what is important. In our firm belief in logic, intellect and the existence of clear scientific answers to even the most complex issues, we seem to have forgotten we also need spiritual fulfilment. As a result, there is a risk that relatively few people are feeling good about their work, and most of those that do are not enjoying it for long, since their often highly individualised achievements will at some point stop giving them the sense of security and happiness they need.
University leaders, including myself, are contributing to this through the reward systems we have set up together, which can make our staff feel unloved. These are invariably metricised, overly quantified, and not very good at measuring how our combined human efforts make ourselves and others feel. We cannot underestimate the pernicious effects of this approach. Not only do leaders unintentionally perpetuate the unhappiness of many of their staff, but inevitably the institutional behaviours being encouraged can spill over into our education and the way we treat our students. If they are taught that there are truths to be discovered purely through rational thinking and (individual) hard work, and that their success in life depends solely on the application of both, they too can end up feeling needlessly competitive and isolated.
“Existing incentives and recognition systems seem to have very little to do with the heart, and even less with experiencing joy.”
I believe that one of the key reasons university staff can, unfairly, seem relatively detached from human emotions in their work, is that existing incentives and recognition systems seem to have very little to do with the heart, and even less with experiencing joy. In order to “make it”, it appears we should work long hours, fiercely compete, perform near-impossible, sometimes painful and often stressful tasks, and strive for perfection. As a result, only hard-to-achieve, quantifiable outcomes seem to matter and can make us feel OK. These principles are engrained and apply to academics, support staff and students alike. We have grown so accustomed to them that, at its most extreme, it could almost feel to us that if we experience pleasure in the process of research, learning and teaching, we must be doing something wrong. We need to stop and ask whether this needs to radically change.
For their part, university leaders need to do some soul-searching, start the conversation and find new paradigms for success. The modern, more outward-facing university needs to prioritise its community’s happiness and fulfilment as a matter of urgency. To do that, we should encourage behaviours that increase a sense of belonging for students and staff, and complement the traditional “rational” metrics with “heart” metrics. If we can recognise and celebrate colleagues who enhance group work, who create a sense of shared purpose and of community, who stimulate empathy and collaboration in their research, their teaching or their support work, would we not enable a different way of working and learning? If we reward outcomes that measure whether students or early career researchers or other colleagues feel happy, included, and able to contribute to a shared and higher purpose – instead of only measuring outputs such as publications, grants or degrees awarded – would we not all feel much better and experience more joy in our daily work? Should that not be allowed, even encouraged?
“We should become aware that we need our hearts as well as our minds, to be a whole, human-centric and impactful university community.”
We should become aware that we need our hearts as well as our minds, to be a whole, human-centric and impactful university community. We can probably even reach the traditional, more easily quantifiable outcomes much better if we not only use our brains, but also listen to our hearts and don’t shy away from recognising our need for love and belonging. It will take some creativity, some intellect and some brainpower to decide how we can measure and reward “softer” and less traditional outcomes, but I am convinced we can figure that out if we want to.
We should never underestimate the power of our combined intellect, but we cannot thrive without the power of love. In the end, that’s fundamental. Even in academia.