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The Empathy Experiments - 8 lessons learned at HMRC Digital

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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!


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  1. Comment by Emma Jefferies posted on

    Hi Antonia,

    Would be great to have a conversation and share more about the impact on diversity.

    Look forward to having a conversation next week.

    All the best,

  2. Comment by Antonia Strachey posted on

    Hi Emma,

    I am also in HMRC and I am really interested to hear about the impact you feel that these experiments had on working culture and openness to diversity (of all types including protected characteristics but also diversity of thought etc).

    I would be interested in having a quick chat with you about those points to see if there is anything that I could transfer into my part of the department.

    Very best wishes,


  3. Comment by Emma Jefferies posted on

    Hello Denise,

    Would be great to have a conversation and share more about what we did first. The Empathy Ambassadors have been involved in shaping the next steps of an empathy programme for CDIO. It is early days yet we are hopeful that what we do learn on this next step would be relevant for HMRC.

    Look forward to having a conversation.

    All the best,

  4. Comment by Emma Jefferies posted on

    Hello Dave,

    Happy to contact you and share how we designed the session together. The sessions were developed by listening to peoples stories of what was learnt, changing the experiments as we learnt more with the Empathy Ambassador so that we could make more relevant to their needs.

    I will be in contact this week and would be great to learn if you know of any stories of empathy in the Scottish government.


  5. Comment by Dave Macnab Scottish Government posted on


    Similarly I am interested in how you designed the session and if this can be shared (with due acknowledgement provided). If we could discuss in more detail my details are provided (Scottish Government - lead on Learning and Performance).

    Dave Macnab

  6. Comment by Denise Mines posted on

    Hi Emma,
    I work in the HMRC Engage, Design and Change team with the lead for engagement and inclusion. I am really interested in your experiment, approach, outcomes and ongoing work to build on the success. Also really interested in the Empathy Ambassadors and whether they have an ongoing role.

  7. Comment by dremmajefferies posted on

    Hi Richard,

    The fours areas came from our work on service teams and analysing what prompted the mind shift in some of our stakeholders and the resultant benefits. I'd be more than happy to chat to you in more detail about what we did?


  8. Comment by dremmajefferies posted on

    Hi John,

    Thank you for your question. We worked to get senior buy-in from the start through selling the benefits of more empathetic teams - ultimately better services for our users and HMRC! We then asked for volunteers to be Empathy Ambassadors and found that a lot of people were very keen to get involved as they could see the benefits, especially as they knew we had support from our senior leaders. We are continuing to learn and are hoping to iterate the experiments and share more as we continue the journey.


  9. Comment by John Everhard posted on

    Hi Emma, as a leader of a large European customer-facing team your lessons learnt comments above really resonated with me. I would be very interested to understand more about the experiments you ran, how you managed to get buy-in from the broader teams and how you selected your Empathy Ambassadors.
    Regards, John

  10. Comment by Richard Smith posted on

    Hi Emma. Really interesting post - sounds like such a useful set of experiments. Would you be able to share with me more detail about how you framed the experiments to cover those 4 areas? I'd like to try something similar in the local authority I work in. Thank you.