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?

Relevance to Management & Leadership

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.

A report5 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development in 2021 on Employee Engagement and Motivation, suggested that employee engagement is linked to line managers who motivate, empower and support 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 youI feel with youI 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 was a key element in their internal business and personal development programme ‘Search Inside Yourself’.  Based on emotional intelligence and mindfulness the programme was 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, an EQ-i 2.0 (Emotional Intelligence Inventory) Accredited Assessor, a Mental Toughness (MTQ48) Licensed Practitioner and a British School of Meditation Qualified Meditation Teacher.  His early career was in software engineering and now has over 30 years experience in Training & Development. He is a multi-instrumentalist, keeps a tidy kitchen when cooking and his current favourite colour is green.

You can contact Eddie on any aspect of this article at eddie.mcdonald@beckinridge.com.

1.http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2011/march-11/reflections-on-mirror-neurons.html Accessed 18.09.2013
  1. Bar-On, R., (2004) Emotional Quotient Inventory Technical Manual, p. 15-18, Multi-Health Systems Inc, Canada.
  2. Goleman.D. (2003) The New Leaders: Transforming The Art of Leadership Into The Science of Results, P67. Sphere, London
  3. Goleman.D. (2003) The New Leaders: Transforming The Art of Leadership Into The Science of Results, P64. Sphere, London
  4. Employee Engagement & Motivation 2022 CIPD https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/relations/engagement/factsheet?utm_source=mc&utm_medium=email&utm_content=cipdupdate_27012021.F1L2_FS_
  5. Concise English Dictionary Version 3.2 (2011) jDictionary Mobile
  6. Goleman.D. (2007) Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, P58. Arrow Books, London
  7. Tan.Chade-Meng, (2012) Search Inside Yourself Increase Productivity Creativity & Happiness, P12, Collins, London.