THE BLOG
07/10/2013 03:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

Empathy: The Missing Link to Solving the World's Most Pressing Problems

Every year come September I leave the Said Business School at Oxford University to spend a busy three weeks as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School teaching a half-semester course entitled "Social Entrepreneurship: A Global Perspective." Last fall I experimented with a new assignment that the students fully enjoyed. To summarize, it involved my pre-identifying some 14 critical global issues the world now faces, having each student identify one they are particularly inspired to do something about, grouping students selecting the same issue with one another, and telling them to come up with an entrepreneurial solution to address it. The issues include the usual suspects: climate change, food security, access to quality health care, access to quality education, peace and security, corruption, etc. I was preparing to run the same assignment again this coming September, but a few serendipitous experiences and recollections over the last few weeks have given me pause for thought.

It was all triggered by an email I received from the World Economic Forum:

"Dear Professor Hartigan,

As an alumnus of the Network of Global Agenda Councils, we value your expertise to help us generate important new knowledge and opportunities for collaboration. We want to hear your views on what world leaders should be watching out for and thinking about in 2014."

The email asked me to complete a survey on the global agenda that ended up being very similar to the exercise I ask my Columbia Business School students to do: to select the issue that one considers to be the most pressing for corporate, political and civil society leaders to address. And that got me to thinking how dissatisfying it is to compartmentalize "issues" into discrete topics, as these issues are so interrelated -- but we all know that -- so why do we keep acting as if these issues are isolated from one another? Is there an underlying core issue that might need to be addressed first, before we go on to tackle this litany of global threats?

I found part of my response in a second, wholly unrelated experience -- a conversation several weeks ago with Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who is best known for his seminal work on disruptive innovation. Last month, we were privileged at Said Business School to have Clay deliver outstanding one-hour lectures on three consecutive evenings to a packed conference hall of students and faculty. I met up with Clay toward the last part of his week at Oxford, and among many things, we talked about the challenges we face in the United States, specifically around education. "We keep pouring billions of dollars into our school system to improve educational outcomes with very little to show for that investment," he noted (and I am paraphrasing here, as I did not tape our conversation). He went on to describe studies he and colleagues had conducted that conclude that a very strong predictor of educational outcomes is the degree of quality interaction children have with their parents during the first three years of life. Basically, how parents relate to their infants and toddlers- that is, the degree of interaction and the quality of that interaction -- make all the difference in the way these children develop in many spheres of their life.

The conversation with Clay got me to thinking about the work that my wonderful friend, Kyle Zimmer, co-founder and CEO of First Book, has dedicated herself to for the last 15 years after doing time as a Washington lawyer. Her "road to Damascus moment" occurred while volunteering in the early 1990s at Martha's Table, a soup kitchen and child care center in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C. that caters to low-income families. She found that the center, and thousands of similar centers in the U.S. like it, had very few age appropriate books. Digging further, she discovered that low-income families with children did not buy books because of the price barrier.

Why does that matter? Many studies concur with a massive longitudinal study examining the educational attainment of 70,000 students from 27 countries which found that having lots of age appropriate books in the home was as good a predictor of children's educational attainment as parents' education levels. In fact, access to books was more predictive than the father's occupation or the family's standard of living. The greatest impact of book access was seen among the least educated and poorest families.

But is it owning The Hungry Caterpillar or The Cat in the Hat that makes the difference, or something else? That "something else" was triggered by my conversation with Clay -- could it be that a book is a medium for enhancing the quality of interaction between a caretaker and a child, and it is in the act of sharing and developing empathy between them as the story is read that makes the difference in the development of a child? This was driven home last week in Australia visiting my daughter and her family and watching as she read to her identical twin two year olds. I recalled how since they were infants she has read to them -- and both boys have listened, transfixed. They now spend hours together pouring over their books and asking mom, dad. or grandma ... to read these again and again. But is it the story or the interaction that is so critical to child development? Or both?

Bill Drayton, the pioneering founder of Ashoka that identifies entrepreneurs with "pattern changing" ideas to transform unsatisfactory systems and practices, has been emphasizing for years that the key to unlocking the solutions to many of society's ills lies in the development of empathy.

One of the Ashoka fellows he singles out in this regard is Mary Gordon, a Canadian entrepreneur who founded Roots of Empathy, a highly successful program to develop empathy in pre-school and primary school children. Worried about the levels of bullying in schools, her solution was to recruit parents of 3-6 month old infants into the classroom. Each class "adopts" a baby who visits the classroom along with a parent and a Roots of Empathy instructor for 27 sessions that run the length of the school year. During a typical visit, the students observe, ask questions, discuss the baby's behavior, the sounds she makes, and her temperament, gaining insights into the infant's growth and development and learning to respond appropriately to what the baby is trying to "tell them" through physical cues. Instructors work with the students to recognize the baby's emotions, and as they become more comfortable identifying and labeling the feelings of others, they are able to explore and discuss their own feelings. This newfound "emotional literacy" helps them recognize the feelings of their peers and understand how violent actions like bullying affect others.

The Roots of Empathy program has been evaluated multiple times by different independent reviewers. The results show that children who participated demonstrated several qualities including a decrease in aggression, an increase in sharing/inclusive/helping behavior, and an increase in emotional perception. These effects appeared to be lasting.

Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The Empathic Civilization, notes that "Empathy conjures up active engagement -- the willingness of an observer to become part of another's experience, to share the feeling of that experience."

Today we have access to internet technology that connects us to one another and to the world. We hear of political, social and natural upheavals as they are happening directly from people "on the ground" who are experiencing these events -- whether it is Hurricane Sandy in the USA or the social uprisings in Egypt and Syria or the collapse of the Bangladeshi apparel factory . Yet most of us, I dare say -- and I include myself here -- certainly do not "feel their pain," as Bill Clinton famously noted.

But never has empathy been so important. We live in an unprecedented era of accelerated and unpredictable change. I completely agree with Rifkin that "the empathic evolution of the human race and the profound ways it has shaped our development... will likely decide our fate as a species."

I wonder whether I can single out the development of empathy as the most important issue that underscores all other issues in the World Economic Forum's Survey on the Global Agenda? I would love to hear global leaders discuss that topic! And now, how to reframe my assignment to my Columbia MBAs?