And have you cared for it or crushed it?
What if I told you that Highly Sensitive People (HSP) were the most powerful social machines on the planet and thus represent a significant asset for your organisation? They have the ability to connect, understand and empathise with people who influence your success. They have access to deep intelligence about how decisions are being made by your stakeholders. And what if I told you that approximately 20% of your workforce has the power of high sensitivity? Now think – is sensitivity a trait that you have cared for or sought to crush in your workplace?
I Have Decided Sensitivity Is A Superpower
If you are an HSP, this may be the first time you have heard the trait of sensitivity described positively. It is usually used in very derogatory terms, sometimes along with the advice you need to toughen up. If you are not an HSP, then you may read this with a fair amount of cynicism and even derision. As a manager or leader, you may have decided, either consciously or subconsciously, that highly sensitive people don’t belong in business and are just trouble. They should be working in the world of the arts or caring professions, not in the world of politics or commerce. This article will show you how denial or rejection of highly sensitive people is ignorant and harmful to your employees and your organisational performance.
How many times you have thought or heard that either you or someone you know was too sensitive for their own good or the benefit of the team. I have heard it directed at me in different forms, including being told that I was “too soft” and being instructed that “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I naturally felt that I was faulty, broken and not tough enough. Understandably I felt that my sensitivity was a weakness that needed to be hidden away. So I tried this for a few decades, and honestly, this approach brought nothing but pain. It served no purpose to me or those around me, and in fact prevented me from making my unique and meaningful contribution to this world.
So here I am, taking a very different approach. I have decided that my sensitivity is a superpower, and I will respect and embrace it. And if anyone else doesn’t like it, well either they:
- don’t understand the power inherent in this trait and/or
- don’t care about the 20% of their employees that have this skill to share.
This article exists to address the former issue of ignorance. I can’t do anything for those people and organisations that don’t care, except to stay well clear of them!
I am taking my inspiration for this view from my many hours of watching Marvel and DC movies, courtesy of my children. Inevitably there are heroes in the movies that have super speed, super strength, x-ray vision, who can fly and turn invisible. But there is also usually what is known as an empath or a sensate. In the Marvel world you have Empath and Jean Grey fulfilling this function. In DC it is Raven who is a prime example of this power at work. So why is it only in the fantasy world is high sensitivity seen as a superpower?
What is High Sensitivity?
What does being highly sensitive mean? We may all have our definitions, but thanks to the work of psychologist and researcher Elaine Aron, we have a clearer picture of the characteristics of highly sensitive people (HSP). Her research has now been supported with neurological imaging showing the traits are not made up but are embedded in the unique ways brains of HSP’s function.
There are four key traits being:
- Deep processing – highly sensitive people both feel and think deeply about things. This trait has to do with the differences in responses to dopamine in their brain. The ‘feel good’ dopamine is activated at a much greater rate in HSP’s for internal rewards rather than external one. The result of this is that HSP’s are driven more by gaining personal understanding and meaning than external praise or adulation.
- Sensitivity to external stimuli – because HSP’s process things so deeply, the environment around them can be a great source of support or a great source of stress. HSP’s get very little reward from external stimuli. In fact, it is the opposite. Things such as noise, lights, crowds and imposing conversations can all be viewed as a threat rather than a pleasure. In this kind of environment, it may not be long before HSP’s become stressed, tense and anxious.
- A finely tuned people radar – HSP’s brains light up when they are around other people. The centres related to consciousness and awareness become extremely excited when in the presence of people and it appears everything in the HSP brain is wired to notice and interpret other people. This means that without even trying, HSP’s are engaged with those around them.
- Deep empathy – we already understand that HSP’s process things deeply. In addition to this, though, it has been found that HSP’s have more advanced mirror neurons. This means that they are incredibly adept at reading, understanding and feeling the emotions that other people are experiencing. In this way, HSP’s have access to profound intelligence about what is happening for the people around them.
If you would like to see if you meet some of these traits, you can take the validated HSP Self Test.
These characteristics, in combination, therefore, make HSP’s an incredibly powerful social asset. They can intuit how the other person on the side of the table is feeling, take it to heart, and let their heart guide the most caring and careful response. They can read a room and attend to the smallest of joys and fears. This is emotional intelligence at its best. Many leaders may be seeking to grow their own emotional intelligence level. However, they may unknowingly have people right beside them that can bring this acumen to the table right now.
Why Does Sensitivity Matter?
But why does this matter? What is the advantage of having sensitivity? It comes down to how people make decisions and is best shown by the theory of cognitive behaviour.
The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) Model
As the CBT model shows, every action we take is driven by feelings. Yes, they are preceded by thoughts, but we will only take action because we feel something. Perhaps we are excited by the potential results. Maybe we are scared of retribution if we go against expected behaviour. Even without our knowing, every action, every decision first passes through some emotional check. The action is either taken because it is supported by a ‘positive’ emotion such as confidence, safety, comfort, happiness or inspiration, or it is driven by a ‘negative’ emotion such as fear, anger or sadness.
Now, tell me, how much of your business, how much or your ability to get something done today relies on other people making decisions? How many stakeholders could make or break your project, proposal or productivity? Stakeholder analyses are common tools these days to maximise the success of our work. But these only deal with superficial elements such as level of power and influence and business-related needs. They don’t generally contemplate the core emotions that are actually driving their behaviour. But as shown by the CBT model, if they don’t, they are only at best an academic exercise. Surely, deep empathy would come in handy to provide your stakeholders with the utmost respect and consideration?
As I mentioned in a previous article (Why Being Data-Driven Should Scare You), the transition to bringing the heart into business is inevitable. The question is whether you are brave enough to lead the charge or whether your organisation will be the losing laggard on the path to holistic and exceptional decision making.
“In the past, jobs were about muscles, now they are about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.”
The Abuse of HSP’s
Like any superpower, there are drawbacks of high sensitivity that must be managed. I know this all too clearly. I have seen so many beautiful HSP’s beaten to a pulp by others too willing to find scapegoats for their own insecurity. Power is often used against sensitivity which is seen as a weakness and a threat to achieving personal and professional goals. When an insecure person realises that the person next to them does feel deeply and takes things to heart, it is easy to engineer situations, consciously or subconsciously, to intimidate and maim to secure their own power. It breaks my heart to think how many people I have seen abused like this. Anyone who is not an HSP would not understand how much cruelty hurts and how deep it goes. Because believe me, if they were aware, then their behaviour would be nothing short of violence and abuse.
What Are Your Responsibilities?
Like any other personal trait, though, there are responsibilities on both sides of the fence for HSP’s.
From the management perspective
Managers of HSP’s have a duty to understand the nature of their employees and a duty of care to ensure their physical and psychological safety. The awareness of a team member with high sensitivity behoves the manager to acknowledge how the other person may feel their words and actions. In addition, high sensitivity should be acknowledged as an incredible strength and ways found for this person to employ it to make a meaningful contribution. It would take a very enlightened leader to facilitate this process and encourage an HSP to bring their full and authentic selves to work!
One key element that may not be considered adequately by employers is the role the work environment can play on the HSP’s level of stress and, thus, productivity. Given the HSP’s sensitivity to external stimuli, noisy open-plan offices can become like torture. While others may thrive on the activity and interaction, it is incredibly exhausting for HSP’s to manage the emotional responses to all of the stimuli. Let me give you a personal example. When I hear someone in a phone conversation behind me, I don’t just hear the words. I am conscious of the tone, the choice of words being used, and the space or lack of space between interactions. If I detect defensiveness or even a hint of aggression, my alarm bells start going off. And there goes maybe half an hour, or even an hour working that one through. All up, it may have been a 5-minute conversation, but I am still working it through long after the call has been ended. The impact on my attention and productivity is significant.
The HSP’s responsibilities
The HSP, however, also has very clear responsibilities. In superhero movies, there is always a period of training where the hero learns how to master their power. It is no different for HSP’s. If you had the gift for public speaking, then it would be your duty to learn this craft and use it to make this world a better place. If you are an HSP, then the onus is on you to understand and hone your gift of sensitivity. While your employer does have a duty of care for your health at work, it is ultimately your responsibility to put in place those routines and arrangements that provide the downtime you need to process and recover from heightened emotional responses to stressful situations.
If the work environment is too overwhelming, than addressing this with your manager is important. Perhaps working from home, a quieter office or organising noise cancelling ear phones could be of assistance.
It is not unusual for me to leave an office environment after a full day and feel like I have been hit by a truck. I used to think there was something wrong with me, and tell myself to ‘get over it and ‘toughen up. Now I realise the best response is self-compassion and self-care. I do need quiet time, transition time, soothing sounds and smells around me to help me process the emotional turmoil of the day.
Can A Person Be Too Sensitive?
The simple answer to this question is yes. They can be too sensitive – for the context they are working within.
Suppose the culture you are operating within sees sensitivity as a weakness and a fault. In that case, you are too sensitive for this context. In contrast, if you are working in a nurturing environment that cares for you as a whole person, recognises your strengths and contribution to complete decision-making, you are not too sensitive.
Unfortunately, decisions about whether HSP’s are too sensitive for the context are made in isolation by managers and teammates who are either ignorant or uncaring about the amazing power of sensitivity. The person is ignored, ostracised and deemed too hard to deal with. Or alternatively, the person shuts down, puts up the walls, and only brings part of themselves to work. In either way, the person, the immediate team and the organisation as a whole loses out.
You don’t hear superheroes being described as too strong, too fast, too smart. Their skills are recognised and adapted to the needs of the situation. I don’t see it any different for the skill of sensitivity. What matters is how much this trait is recognised, respected and harnessed to deliver great outcomes for the HSP and the team.
What if HSP was recognised as a skill on employee development agreements and fostered and nurtured? Can you imagine a world where sensates and empaths were embraced and valued? What a very different world it would be! It would be much more like those superhero worlds whose values we admire. It would be one step closer to bringing an ideal fantasy world into the reality of our everyday lives.
With Awareness Comes Responsibility
At the outset of this article, I stated my purpose was to bring awareness to the power that resides within high sensitivity. I can only hope that if you have made it to this point, you now have a clearer understanding of HSP’s and their very special gift. They say that with awareness comes responsibility, and in writing this article, I have done my part. Now it is up to you – the ball is in your court. Now that you know about 20% of your workforce may hold the power of sensitivity, what will you do about it? Will you still choose to ignore it, reject it, or will you seek to harness the unique traits held not just HSP’s but every individual you have employed?
This article is dedicated to Penny – may you come to know just how special and beautiful you are, and may you find a workplace full of people who see this in you too!
If you would like to know more about high sensitivity, here are some fantastic resources:
Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/highly-sensitive-person
The Highly Sensitive Person Website – https://hsperson.com/
European Centre for High Sensitivity – http://www.hsp-eu.com/
THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON:
How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
by Elaine N. Aron, PhD.
 Psychology Today. 2021. 4 Brain Differences of Highly Sensitive People. [online] Available at: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/highly-sensitive-refuge/201901/4-brain-differences-highly-sensitive-people> [Accessed 11 June 2021].
 Minouche Shafik, director of The London School of Economics as quoted in Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, 2019, Vermillion