The happier you are, the less able you are to empathise with others, but you think you are empathising with them. Clear as mud? Your life is going great, and you're positive and upbeat, and are anxious to be mindful of others, but somehow your own happiness puts blinders on.

New research from Yale graduate student, Hillary Devlin, indicates that your happiness doesn't help you evaluate others' emotions. Devlin found that people who rated themselves the happiest had the most trouble evaluating a monologue about the death of a parent, even though they believed that their ability to empathise was above average.

What does this mean for the workplace? Well, just because your life is going great doesn't mean that your employees' lives are going well. I see a lot of this around Christmas time. The boss, who has a great salary, wants everyone to pay to come to the holiday party, or can't understand why people aren't buying gifts for him, or donating to the office's favorite charity. The boss lacks the ability to see that others may not be as fortunate as he is (even though he knows their salaries), nor does he understand that other people have other priorities.

It also can lead bosses to discourage vacations, or to reject requests for flexible working hours. After all, if the boss is happy with the company (because you, of course, love your own company!) why shouldn't your employees want to devote their whole souls to your start up?

You can see how this can lead down a very bad path.

The study suggests that we subconsciously have poor empathy when we're happy, but we're not stuck that way. We can definitely do something to consciously increase our empathy--and if not empathy, sympathy, which can be good enough. Here's how;

Stop assuming everyone is like you. They are not. They have different reactions, different preferences, and different goals. Because you felt this way, doesn't mean your employees feel the same way. Stop it with the assumptions and ask.

Ask! It doesn't take long to put up a little anonymous poll, where employees can vote for whether they'd rather have a fancy holiday party at $50 a head, or a potluck at lunch. If your employee has had death in the family, don't just express condolences, ask how he is doing and what the business can do to help.

Listen. Often, we're numb to feedback because we're absolutely convinced that we're seeing it correctly. When someone tells you something about their feelings, or what they need, believe them. Now, granted, your job as the boss is not to provide every thing that every employee needs, but you should start from a position if "if it's possible, we'll help you out on this." When PR firm Affect had 20 percent of their staff have babies within the same year, they had great success with this idea of starting with yes in mind.

Work to gain empathy. Fellow Inc writer, Jessica Stillman listed three ways to gain empathy. 1. Get curious about strangers. 2. Listen and make yourself vulnerable. 3. Expand your circle of empathy. If doing all 3 is overwhelming, pick one and work at it.

Now, of course, just because unhappy people are better able to empathize, you shouldn't focus on becoming miserable. An unhappy boss makes for unhappy employees. Instead, be glad you're happy and can create a positive environment, but work hard to understand where your employees truly are coming from.

Published on: Nov 25, 2014
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