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Empathy at Work: Why?

In 1992, a team led by neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, Italy accidently discovered what have been termed “mirror neurons” in macaque monkeys.  These brain cells became active (fired) when the monkey performed an action - in this case picking up a peanut.  However, the team also noticed that the same brain cells fired in the monkey when it watched one of the researchers pick up a peanut.

Like monkeys, humans have mirror neurons that fire when we both perceive and take an action1.  It has been proposed by some that this process and the ability to feel what others feel is the biological basis for empathy.  If this is the case then it would imply that empathy has a purpose and usefulness to human survival, success and effectiveness.

Empathy is ‘the ability to be aware of, to understand, and to appreciate the feelings of others. It is “tuning in” (being sensitive) to what, how, and why people feel the way they do’2.  Why should this be relevant to the workplace?

From a management and leadership perspective it is important that managers can adapt their approach to different situations that arise.  In the words of Daniel Goleman ‘the best, most effective leaders act according to one or more of six distinct approaches to leadership and skillfully switch between various styles depending on the situation’3. Of his Six Leadership Styles four (visionary, democratic, affiliative and coaching) foster resonance in teams and empathy is the common tread in the emotional intelligence competencies that support these styles.

Goleman also says that ‘empathetic people are superb at recognizing and meeting the needs of clients, customers and subordinates …. empathy is key to retaining talent …. in a growing global economy, empathy is a critical skill for both getting along with diverse workmates and doing business with people from other cultures’4.  Quite a business case.
Wherever we are positioned within an organisation, empathy will help us to interact with others, to be a support for others, to be able to understand the needs of others.   For managers this skill is central.  In order to influence, motivate, achieve results through others, and to develop people engagement managers need to use empathy.

In a survey on engagement5 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development in 2012 the results suggested that employee engagement is linked to how often managers give praise and recognition; discuss employees’ development and career progression; discuss ideas put forward to improve products or services; joint problem-solve with their employees; ask after their well-being and coach employees.  All these involve using empathy to some degree.

Can we learn empathy? Can we develop this skill that will have an impact on our effectiveness in the workplace?  The short answer is yes.

The first step to developing empathy is to develop our own self-awareness.  If we can develop our ability to notice how we ourselves are feeling, what emotions we are expressing, what thoughts we are having and then take the step of accepting that others have similar feelings, emotions and thoughts, then we are half way there.  To support this transition I recommend mindfulness meditation practice in order to raise our awareness.

I like to describe empathy as a pro-active process.  Unlike sympathy (which is a relation of affinity or harmony between people; whatever effects one correspondingly effects the other6) empathy involves understanding, and importantly, actively entering into another’s feelings.  Daniel Goleman refers to this pro-active approach as having three distinct steps ‘I notice you; I feel with you; I act to help you’7.  This involves developing compassion.

The key to using empathy is giving others feedback on what they are feeling and why.  It sends a signal that we understand, we are interested, that we care. Ask others how they feel; inquire and be curious; put yourself in their shoes.  This requires paying attention to others – to really listen.

Of course these skills do not come naturally to everyone.  In our trainings on Emotional Intelligence people often comment on how strange it feels when they take part in an exercise using empathy.  It feels physically ‘wrong’ and has a visceral element.  Why? Because they are not used to doing it.  But the good news is that with training, by practicing the right habits, we can all develop our empathy.

So what is the next step for your organisation?  Why not take a leaf out of one of the largest companies in the world – Google?  Developing empathy is a key element in their internal business and personal development programme ‘Search Inside Yourself’.  Based on emotional intelligence and mindfulness the programme is rooted in Google’s business needs by developing ‘stellar work performance, outstanding leadership, and the ability to create the conditions for happiness’8.  A recipe for success with an empathic approach and one that perhaps you can consider with our support.

About The Author

Eddie McDonald is the Managing Director of Beckinridge, a BarOn EQ-i (Emotional Intelligence Inventory) Accredited Assessor and a British School of Meditation Qualified Meditation Teacher.  He has over 30 years experience in Training & Development and is currently championing the engagement of Mindfulness within the workplace.

You can contact Eddie on any aspect of this article at


1. Accessed 18.09.2013

2. Bar-On, R., (2004) Emotional Quotient Inventory Technical Manual, p. 15-18, Multi-Health Systems Inc, Canada.

3. Goleman.D. (2003) The New Leaders: Transforming The Art of Leadership Into The Science of Results, P67. Sphere, London

4. Goleman.D. (2003) The New Leaders: Transforming The Art of Leadership Into The Science of Results, P64. Sphere, London

5. Employee Outlook Survey Spring 2012 CIPD

6. Concise English Dictionary Version 3.2 (2011) jDictionary Mobile

7. Goleman.D. (2007) Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, P58. Arrow Books, London

8. Tan.Chade-Meng, (2012) Search Inside Yourself Increase Productivity Creativity & Happiness, P12, Collins, London.

Mindfulness In The Workplace

More and more organizations are embracing mindfulness as an approach to improving effectiveness. The UK's first Mindfulness at Work conference (organized by Mindfulnet) took place in February 2012 and oganisations such as eBay, Google, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Prudential, the Home Office, Transport for London, the NHS have all launched mindfulness programmes.

One key message from the 2012 conference was that mindfulness can help employees thrive under stress and relate better to colleagues or clients. While managing stress is one reason for the uptake it is not the only benefit.

In the workplace people may react rather than respond when faced by an interruption, a difficulty, a challenge. They allow thoughts of problems or complications take over and lose their focus on the task in hand. If a manager views a team member's approach only as an interruption which will make him or her late for a meeting, miss a deadline or just waste their time the reaction will do little to build communication and trust.

In his landmark book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People', Steven Covey refers to the ability to find the space between stimulus and response. He says that between stimulus and response is our greatest power - the freedom to choose (Covey 2004).

Practicing mindfulness develops the ability to 'find the space'; the time to simply stop, pay your full attention and notice. There are always times when we need to pay this full attention; perhaps to a colleague, to a team member, to a customer or to ourselves. This ability in staff members (and particularly in managers) is one of the most beneficial outcomes from mindfulness development for organizations.

In addition, mindfulness training enhances interpersonal relationships, it develops emotional intelligence, increases resilience, enhances innovation and creativity, and extends one's attention span (Chaskalson 2011).

So what is mindfulness? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally (Kabat-Zinn 2012). So it is about being able to pay attention and be non-judgemental. These two skills are much needed in the workplace and one reason why the interest is developing.
Another perspective suggests that mindfulness is simply training the brain to realise benefit (McDonald 2012). And just as one might practice swimming to build physical abilities in preparation for a marathon one can practice mindfulness to develop mental abilities to prepare for the challenges of the workplace (and daily life).

There are different approaches to developing mindfulness and meditation skills in general. On our mindfulness programmes we introduce participants to a range of techniques and they choose those that work best for them. One approach is using the breath as a focus of attention. You can try this yourself with the guided meditation link at the end of this article.
Mindfulness practice does not necessarily take up a lot of time. Although the most well-know programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (University of Massachusetts Medical Centre) is the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, shorter interventions (particularly in a non-clinical context) do have impact.

In a study by led by Yi-Yuan Tang (2007) a form of meditation training called Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) was used to show immediate results. After training of just five days (20 minutes each day) participants showed increased attention, relaxation and body-mind awareness. Most participants noticed a significant decrease in daily stress, anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue. Additionally, tests groups showed an overall improvement in emotional and cognitive performance. (Tang et al 2007).

Our five-week 'Mindful Manager' programme (delivered recently to Irish Life Corporate Business in Dublin) offers managers the opportunity to take one-hour per week guided practice to develop mindfulness and meditation skills. During the programme participants reported positive shifts in effectiveness. The business-focused outcomes for participants of this programme were to:

  1. Be more self-aware and aware of others
  2. Improve listening skills
  3. Improve awareness of customers/team members perspectives
  4. Be able to manage stress and stressful situations

In another example, Ovo Energy (an energy supplier based in England) offer staff the opportunity to meditate. According to Phill Mather (HR Director) 'That might sound like a fluffy thing to be advocating in a business context, but when you look at the outcomes it is far from it. Twenty minutes of meditation every day can reconfigure the brain in increase creativity, positivity and well-being' (People Management 2013).

As the body of evidence in this area grow (with approximately 30 to 40 peer-review papers published each month), the corporate and business worlds have started to embrace the benefits of contemplative practices, engage in their practical application and reap their benefits. Perhaps your organisation can benefit from them too.

Mindfulness Exercise

Try being mindful for 10 minutes.  This guided meditation will introduce you to using your breath as a focus of attention.

Click on the icon to play in your browser or, to download, right click and save.

Do not listen to this recording while driving or operating machinery.

About The Author

Eddie McDonald is the Managing Director of Beckinridge, a BarOn EQ-i (Emotional Intelligence Inventory) Accredited Assessor and a British School of Meditation Qualified Meditation Teacher. He has over 30 years experience in Training & Development and is currently championing the engagement of Mindfulness within the workplace.

You can contact Eddie regarding Mindfulness In The Workplace at


Covey., S.R. (2004) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, p. 7o, Free Press, New York

Chaskalson, M, (2011) The Mindful Workplace, P5, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.
Tang et al, (2007), Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation, The National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Kabat-Zinn,Jon. (2012) Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness: Meditation for Everyday Life, P6, Piatkus, London.

McDonald. E, (2012) Introduction To Meditation Five Week Programme

People Management, (2013), Phill Mather (Hr Director Ovo Energy), in 'Pathways', P59, People Management Journal: Centenary Special Edition, June 2013, CIPD.


Emotional Intelligence for Business Benefit

While Emotional Intelligence (EI) is now an essential element in any Leadership & Management development initiative, this is not its only domain of influence in the
workplace.  It is the platform that can support successful sales, technology teams,
and indeed is a key factor in job satisfaction and improved productivity overall.

Keeping customers and improving sales is essential to any successful company or organsisation. Research by Blair Kidwell and colleagues (Journal of Marketing, January 2011) found that Sales Professionals with higher EI are not only superior revenue generators but also better at retaining customers. In addition, the authors demonstrate that high-EI salespeople more effectively employ customer-oriented selling and influence customer decisions. This research has implications for improving interactions between buyers and sellers and for employee selection and training. 

According to Chade-Meng Tan (creator of ‘Search Inside Yourself’, the mindfulness based emotional intelligence programme at Google) the top six competencies that distinguish star performers from average performers in the technology sector were (in this order): Strong achievement drive and high achievement standards; Ability to influence; Conceptual thinking; Analytical ability; Initiative in taking on challenges; Self-confidence (Chade-Meng Tan 2012).  As can be seen only two of these engage conceptual or analytical ability – the other four are emotional competencies.

As the above suggests, technical know-how or domain knowledge is not enough to be successful whether you are a software engineer, an accountant, marketing or human resource specialist, the CEO or a sales person.  To be successful requires in addition an understanding of self and others and the skills to manage this dynamic.  This was the key message in Daniel Goleman’s landmark book of 1996 ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’.

Goleman was of course not the first to highlight EI.  It had already been defined by John Mayer and Peter Salovey as ‘The ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions’.  Reuven Bar-On (creator of the EQ-i Assessment) further defined EI as ‘an array of non-cognitive capabilities, competencies and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures’.

Essentially EI focuses on Personal Competencies of self-awareness and self management (to determine how we manage ourselves) and Social Competencies of relationship management (to determine how we engage with others) along with elements that drive and support our motivation.  Among various EI Frameworks available The Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i 2.0®) describes the following components:

  • Self-Awareness (Self-Regard, Emotional Self-Awareness, Self-Actualization)
  • Self-Expression (Emotional Expression, Assertiveness, Independence)
  • Interpersonal (Empathy, Social Responsibility, Interpersonal Relationship)
  • Stress Management (Flexibility, Stress Tolerance, Optimism)
  • Decision Making (Reality Testing, Problem Solving, Impulse Control)

The interplay of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in the above components is a key factor in professional performance and success. The good news is that EI is not permanently fixed and the capabilities and competencies that define EI can be developed to improve performance.

Of course the case for Emotional Intelligence within a Leadership & Management context is well documented. According to Charles Elvin (2012), Chief Executive of The Institute for Leadership & Management, research indicates that managers and leaders who have high levels of EI are better able to increase the performance of their teams.  And increasing performance provides the business case for the uptake of EI and the reason companies large and small are taking note throughout the workplace.

A 2008 study by Simin Hosseinian and colleagues to investigate the effect of training aspects of EI on job satisfaction and productivity revealed that training EI is effective in increasing productivity and essential to improve human resources generally.  A benefit to business and something for everyone.

About The Author

Eddie McDonald is the Managing Director of Beckinridge and a BarOn EQ-i (Emotional Intelligence Inventory) Accredited Assessor.  He has over 30 years experience in Training & Development and is currently championing the engagement of Mindfulness within the workplace. 

You can contact Eddie regarding Emotional Intelligence development at


Kidwell, B., Hardesty, D. M., Murtha, B. R., & Sheng, S. (2011). Emotional intelligence in marketing exchanges. Journal of Marketing, 75(1), 78-95.

Tan.Chade-Meng, (2012) Search Inside Yourself Increase Productivity Creativity & Happiness., Collins, London.

Goleman,D., (2006) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bloombury Publishing, London.

Peter Salovey, Marc A. Brackett, John D. Mayer (2007) in Emotional Intelligence: Key Readings on the Mayer and Salovey Model, p 5, Dude Publications, New York.

Bar-On, R., (2004) Emotional Quotient Inventory Technical Manual, p. 14, Multi-Health Systems Inc, Canada.

Charles Elvin (2012) Chief Executive of The Institute for Leadership & Management in ‘Edge’ (The Journal of The ILM), P43, Sept-Oct 2012 Issue.

Simin Hosseinian, Seyedeh-Monavar Yazdi, Shaghayegh Zahraie and Ali Fathi-Ashtiani, 2008. Emotional Intelligence and Job Satisfaction. Journal of Applied Sciences, 8: 903-906.

Useful Links:

Team Building? Have You Considered Music?

Rap music, Country music, Hip Hop, Classical, R&B, Blues, House, Rock, Heavy Metal, New Wave, Punk, Folk, Jazz, Techno, Trance, Reggae.  Have I left anything out?  I’m sure I have and I’m reasonably certain that you the reader will have noticed if I have; or at least paid more attention to one or more of the genres I’ve listed than the others.  Why? Well music is in our soul and ‘without music life would be a mistake’ as Friedrich Nietzsche said.

So what’s my point? Simply that music is a great common ground.  Get a bunch of people together, play some music and hey presto!  And whatever the style, music can encourage teamwork – imagine a group of people with the common objective of creating a piece of music which arouses emotions, generates enthusiasm and motivates action.

Large companies such as Microsoft, PWC, GE have used team building events incorporating music making and many small to medium size companies recognise the value of away days.  For the company away day it is worth considering how such events can accommodate the needs of different personality types and interests. And not everyone wants to climb a rope, abseil down a cliff or cross a river!

If managed well this is where music can play an important part in gelling a group.  In fact, a brain imaging study by Stanford University School of Medicine scientists suggests that the brains of different people listening to the same piece of music actually respond in the same way, which may in part explain why music plays such a big role in our social existence 1.  With music everyone can ‘play their part’ – using their voice, an instrument or in the lyric writing process.

Music has for many years helped bond people together in common thought, emotion and drive.  Think about some of the great ‘grouping’ songs of the past from ‘Free Nelson Mandella by The Special AKA; ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon; ‘My Generation’ by The Who; ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ by Band Aid, and you may agree that music is the ‘tie that binds’.  Imagine how a company anthem created by the company’s staff could impact?

Martin Goss, Managing Director at Etain (a custom software development & web design company based in Belfast and Dublin), recognises the value of music within a team building context having used the model for Etain’s own staff.  According to Martin ‘the event created great enthusiasm and bonding among everyone. It broke down barriers and importantly had a lasting effect’.

Crucially, team building events and away days are among the most effective ways of increasing levels of engagement within an organisation. Engaged employees feel connected with the organisation’s values and that their contribution is valued, which in turn encourages people to demonstrate effort, commitment and passion 2.

Our 'Team Building with Music' workshop helps develop communication and cooperation and is suitable for both musician and non-musician. The workshop provides an opportunity for teams to work together to create their own piece of music.  Participants do not have to have a musical background to play their part in creating a ‘masterpiece’ that will not only utilise each individuals strengths but can be a real talking point and motivator back at the workplace.

Whether it is for leadership development, team building, away days or fun days, music can be utilised.  Music breaks through barriers of age, gender, culture, language, and race. It breaks down hierarchical barriers of job positions. It is energizing and stimulates the senses.  Creating a piece of music can help reflect and embed the core values of an organization and allow everyone to express them.

So if you are planning a Team Building event it may be worth considering using music.  Here’s something to get you thinking.  List your company values or your company’s mission statement.  Put down a few other key phrases that reflect the style, culture and aspirations of your organization.  Now think of a musical style and imagine some of the words you’ve written in that style.  Now imagine you and a bunch of your colleagues on stage, in lights, the music swelling and …. well I hope you get the idea.


1., ‘Different brains have similar responses to music’ Accessed 08.05.14

2. ‘Team away days – a valuable use of time or a waste of money?’ Accessed 08.05.2014

About The Author

Eddie McDonald is the Managing Director of Beckinridge, an Emotional Intelligence Inventory Accredited Assessor and a British School of Meditation Qualified Meditation Teacher.  He has over 30 years experience in Training & Development and is currently championing the engagement of Mindfulness and Music within the workplace. 
You can contact Eddie on any aspect of this article at

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