Does empathy have economic value?

Here’s a post from my MPR colleague Mike Caputo:

In just nine months, Amanda Halbersma, a Public Insight Network source, went from buying a foreclosed home to worrying about the possibility of foreclosure with that very same house.

Several years ago, Marcia Miller of Minneapolis worked as an administrative law judge for Arizona’s unemployment department. Last fall she was forced to file for unemployment herself. Despite adjudicating the unemployment process many times, Miller says didn’t truly understand the frustration with the process until she went through herself.

“In fact, I didn’t even know how to apply [for unemployment benefits],” says Miller.

Hard times have a way of building empathy. More people are seeing how the other half lives, because now they’re one of them. In July, there were 75,000 more people unemployed in Minnesota then there were a year ago. A third more people in Minnesota filed for bankruptcy than a year ago.

There’s an upside here, for people, and for businesses. Some business leaders suggest the capacity to care is a good thing for the economy. Business strategist Dev Patnaik, author of “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy,” says the problem with business isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy.

In an interview with MSNBC, Patnaik said the organizations that survive economic crisis are those with empathetic cultures and managers who are able to step outside themselves and walk in someone else’s shoes. “It’s about having intuition and a gut feeling for other people,” he explains.

Marcia Miller says her upbringing and professional pursuits gave her sympathy for those getting unemployment benefits. She grew up in a small Iowa town where her parents struggled to own a home and make a living. She worked her way through school, earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota.

But sympathy (feeling for someone) is very different than empathy (walking a mile in their shoes). And it wasn’t until years later, when she moved to Minnesota and struggled to find a job, that she truly understood the frustration with the unemployment process, by applying herself.

“You worry that one wrong move may keep you from receiving benefits,” she says, “It’s not an easy process for people.”

Last fall, Amanda Halbersma and her husband bought a foreclosed condo in Minneapolis. At the time, she focused on what a good deal she was getting, not on why she was getting a good deal. “We thought we were pretty smart,” she says.

Then, in early 2009, Halbersma lost her job. And suddenly the good deal became “an albatross.” How would they swing the mortgage payment with only one income? Would they have to consider selling? What if the house fell into foreclosure? Halbersma landed a new job within a few months. Still, the threat of losing her home cured her naïveté.

“Now I’m much more keenly aware,” she says. “I learned what people who go through this have to deal with.”

Still, that empathy wouldn’t prevent Halbersma from buying a foreclosure in the future, she says, largely because she wouldn’t begrudge someone from getting a home that she was forced to leave.

As for Miller, she’s still looking for work. And she’s skeptical that her experience will translate on a resume. Insight is fine, she says, “but does that help me practically in life, in getting work? I’m not so sure.”

What are your stories of empathy and understanding in this economy? Tell us here

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