The world is full of judgement for highly sensitive people. But research suggests that, when managed appropriately, highly sensitive employees can be a real asset to an organisation and can become incredible leaders.
For those of us who feel things deeply, we are told at a young age to stop being so sensitive, stop taking everything so personally and grow a thicker skin.
As we grow up, we may get similar feedback from our managers or colleagues in the workplace, who tell us to stop letting our emotions show. Often managers see having a highly sensitive person (HSP) on their team as a burden to overcome.
But, contrary to popular belief, high sensitivity isn’t necessarily linked to emotional reactivity. Put more simply, just because you feel emotions deeply, it doesn’t mean you can’t control them.
“We tend to think of sensitive people as soft, fragile people who need to be handled with kid gloves,” says workplace success and executive coach and author Melody Wilding. “And nothing could be further from the truth, because to be sensitive, to process everything deeply, to feel the world in a profound way, takes a lot of energy and strength.
“Sensitivity is very misunderstood,” says Wilding.
In its definition of a highly sensitive person, Psychology Today borrows from psychologist Elaine Aron, who describes HSPs as those who “display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli – pain, hunger, light and noise – and a complex inner life.”
Wilding adds that high sensitivity is not a disorder, a character defect or a weakness.
“It’s just a normal variation. We have to expand our understanding of neurodiversity to accept all differences and high sensitivity is one of them.”
Current research estimates that HSPs make up 20-35 per cent of the population, and are evenly split between genders.
How highly sensitive people can benefit the workplace
As a society we often fail to understand that people with an ability to feel everything deeply can offer huge benefits to those around them.
“High sensitivity actually serves a very important evolutionary purpose,” says Wilding. “It was very helpful back in prehistoric days to have people who didn’t just run into danger, but who were considered and read a situation before thinking critically about their next steps.”
“While the [average] person’s brain may be taking in 1000 pieces of information at any one time, a highly sensitive person’s brain is taking in 100,000.” – Melody Wilding, workplace success and executive coach.
Translating this into a work environment in the 21st century, Wilding says HSPs think before they speak, are strong negotiators, can pick up on subtle cues and read a room, and often see situations from a variety of different perspectives.
“They’re good at trying to find a resolution and harmony in a team, and at spotting opportunities or risks that other people may miss, all of which makes them excellent leaders,” says Wilding. “I can’t tell you how many of my highly sensitive clients have been responsible for recognising that somebody’s not fully engaged and turning that around before they lose them.
“And, because HSPs are very diplomatic and understand people’s motivations, they’re great at building rapport with clients or stakeholders. That’s a tremendous advantage – if people are listening to them.”
HSPs are likely to become more important in an increasingly digitised world.
Research from multinational publishing and education company Pearson analysed more than 21 million job ads from the US, UK, Canada and Australia. It found that the top five most in-demand skills until at least 2026 will be human-centred skills, including communication, customer service, leadership, attention to detail and collaboration.
Challenges for HSPs and how managers can help
While HSPs are blessed with many beneficial attributes, life isn’t always easy for them.
Taking in minute details, including other people’s emotions, can sometimes leave them feeling exhausted and stressed.
“While the [average] person’s brain may be taking in 1000 pieces of information at any one time, a highly sensitive person’s brain is taking in 100,000,” says Wilding.
This can make thinking on the spot and dealing with surprises or unforeseen risks a challenge for HSPs, but there are ways managers can help mitigate these difficulties and draw out their strengths.
Wilding shares some suggestions:
- Create a plan with predictability and structure, and set agendas in advance. This may mean a heads-up if they’re required to speak in a meeting.
- Protect them from overstimulating environments. Carve out ‘do not disturb’ time when people can focus without interruptions.
- Organise regular check-ins. This is an opportunity to ask them what is working or not working, and what communication and environment allows them to work at their best.
- Pair them with the right colleagues. HSPs can struggle with highly dominant types who don’t make small talk, are results-driven and can steamroll them (sometimes without realising).
- Match their skill sets and qualities with the right assignments. This might be a project where they have the opportunity to think critically or build bridges between different departments.
- Encourage them to set healthy boundaries and speak up for themselves. HSPs often worry about letting people down.
Wilding says it’s also up to leaders to reframe HSPs as valuable assets to the team.
“It’s about listening to and believing in them. While HSPs are intuitive, they aren’t always the best at articulating what is informing that perspective, which I think is a missed opportunity.
“For leaders, it’s important to listen to sensitive people when they have a hunch about something, and nudge them to articulate their reasoning. It could be that they’ve seen a type of project fail in the past and they know all of the pitfalls.”
How HSPs can help themselves
While it’s important to accept high sensitivity in others, it’s also important to accept it in ourselves, says Wilding.
“Most sensitive people have been told to be less of who they are, so they look to everyone else for validation. This can be especially challenging for men, who may have been told to ‘toughen up.'”
Wilding advises her highly sensitive clients to work on their self-confidence in order to get over their imposter syndrome.
Read HRM’s article on the 5 types of Impostor Syndrome.
Challenging themselves can help, such as learning to hold their own against a highly dominant person, or standing up for what they think is important.
Wilding also feels strongly that HSPs shouldn’t shy away from leadership positions for fear that they are incapable, or not brash or bold enough.
“My clients will say, ‘I don’t want to be a leader because I don’t want to turn into that,’ not realising that, by stepping into a leadership role, they can change the way the organisation approaches things,” she says.
“I strongly believe that when we have sensitive people in positions of power and leadership, everything gets better, and that we’ll have more safe, supportive, optimistic and satisfying workplaces. Because we’ll have leaders who really care.”
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