Increasing Emotional Intelligence

The Most Important Factor to Increase Emotional Intelligence

Our days are busy and our schedules are packed. We move at a faster pace than ever before, being pulled in different directions constantly throughout the day. When waking up in the morning feels like the pistol start of a foot race, it’s easy to go through our lives jumping from one task to the next, checking boxes on our to-do list one by one and judging ourselves on our progress, or lack thereof. But what often gets lost in all of the striving to achieve is among the most important factors in our societal health and well-being.

Our ability to pause for a moment and truly connect with one another, to take the time to develop an understanding of each other’s stories and experiences, is what gives our lives meaning. Studies[1] have shown that a lack of social connection can be more detrimental to our health than high blood pressure, obesity, or cigarettes.

Is it possible to be socially connected without empathy? If you’re speaking strictly on social media terms, perhaps the answer is yes. But in the world outside of our screens, empathy is the key to emotional connection; and we need it to properly function in both our personal and professional interactions.

How Empathy Influences Work

The human brain is naturally wired to experience empathy. When we observe action in others, Mirror Neurons cause us to mimic that same action inside our own brain. If we witness someone in pain, we also experience that pain to a certain extent, thanks to this “neural wifi”[2] network connecting us to the emotions of the people around us.

It stands to reason then, that when we are surrounded by a team of colleagues who are constantly harried, stressed, or aggressive, we would feel this tension and feel it within our own bodies as well. Similarly, when we experience a lack of empathy from the people we work with, it can make our jobs almost unbearable.

According to the 2017 Business Solver State of Workplace Empathy Study[3]:

  • 85% of employees feel that their employer undervalues empathy
  • 30% of employees say that their company is not empathetic
  • 50% of employees feel that no companies or organizations are empathetic
  • Women are more likely to feel a lack of empathy than men (45%)
  • 78% of employees would leave their employer for an equal paying role elsewhere if more empathy was available
  • 60% of employees would be willing to take a pay cut for a more empathetic work environment
  • 77% of employees would work longer hours for an empathetic employer
  • 92% of employees would stay with a company that empathizes with their needs

The research clearly shows that we respond to empathy in the workplace positively. So what should we do if we find ourselves mired in a work environment that’s lacking in empathy? Can empathy be taught? Can it be nurtured and grown?

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” – Stephen Covey

Can We Learn Empathy?

A study conducted by researchers including first author Grit Hein at the University of Zurich[4] looked at whether empathy could be learned. Participants in the study were told they would be receiving painful shocks, but that others (who were either members of their group or members of another group/outsiders) could pay money to save the person from being shocked. Scientists measured brain activation in all participants before and after receiving these shocks, and again after participants interacted with in and out group members who saved them from the shocks.

At the beginning of the experiment, participants experienced a weaker reaction to an outsider’s pain than someone in their own group. However, after only a couple of positive experiences with someone in the out-group (via the outsider sparing them from the painful shocks), in-group participants experienced a significantly stronger empathetic response than before. Perhaps even more interesting, the study revealed that following the positive out-group experience, a neurolearning signal is transferred to other members of the group, increasing empathy for other outsiders.

Increasing Empathy in the Workplace

So not only can empathy be learned in a relatively short period of time, but its effects can generalize to others. This means that making a few small adjustments can make a significant impact on our empathetic response, and therefore our emotional intelligence. Try these easy steps to get started:

Listen Mindfully

When you’re speaking with your co-workers, ask how they’re doing, and then really listen to their response. Set aside the need to interject your opinion and just allow them to talk freely about their feelings. You can learn more about mindful communication here.


Practice people watching. Human beings are fascinating, and we can learn a lot from taking even a few minutes to observe. On your next lunch break, take your sandwich and sit on a bench in a park or common area. As people pass by, consider the fact that there is always a reason for even the most puzzling behavior. Remember that everyone has challenges and struggles at times. Each person has a unique story.

Be Curious

Rather than jumping to judgement, give your co-workers the benefit of the doubt by considering what their motivation may have been for a particular action or decision. We often tell ourselves stories about other people that aren’t true to fit our own narratives. Do you have enough information to come to a given conclusion, or should you take the time to ask and question your assumptions?

Read Fiction

Reading a great fiction book is a fantastic way to instantly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Dive into a good book and you’ll engage that mental muscle of taking a different perspective. A recent meta-analysis concluded that reading fiction enhances empathy [5].


One of the best ways to influence our subconscious thinking patterns is through meditation and reflective contemplation. SIGMA offers a guided perspective meditation that can assist in shifting our beliefs about the people around us.

Remember the Connection

Regardless of our cultural backgrounds, personality types, skill sets, and interests, human beings are more alike than dissimilar. Everyone wants to be appreciated, loved, and respected. Sometimes a little bit of kindness can crack even the hardest nut.

How SIGMA Can Help

Developing the habits of a mindful workplace lays the foundation for a more empathetic team. SIGMA Assessment Systems has helped thousands of organizations across North America to enhance their people potential and increase organizational effectiveness. Our mindfulness coaching and training programs bring present moment awareness to the area of empathy, leading to more cohesive and creative teams. To learn more, contact us today.

[1] Psychology Today, “Connect to Thrive”,

[2] Psychology Today, “I Don’t Feel Your Pain: Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy”,

[3] Forbes, “A $600 Billion Employee Engagement Problem Solved: Empathy”, – eaf3b32b1a35

[4] Hein, G., Engelmann, J. B., Vollberg, M. C., & Tobler, P. N. (2016). How learning shapes the empathic brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113, 80-85.

[5] Dodell-Feder, D., & Tamir, D. I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147, 1713-1727.

About the Author

Brittney Anderson, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant & Executive Coach

Brittney is a member of our coaching and consulting team. She brings her expertise in evidence-based practice to provide companies with leadership solutions that meet their needs. Primarily, Brittney helps her clients prepare for their future with succession planning and comprehensive leadership development programs. As an executive coach, she helps leaders hone their skills using a process-based approach to development.