Are you the manager of highly sensitive people? Probably, because HSPs are twenty percent of the population. The authentic HSP tends to more fully consider options and outcomes and so may be a major asset to your department. You may think of a sensitive person as an immature, self-absorbed and temperamental individual who flies off the handle at every small thing. Not so, according to science. Being “highly sensitive” means being high in sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), a trait that is inborn and genetic.
“Overly sensitive” and “highly sensitive” sound similar and have been confused. In common usage, an “overly sensitive” person describes someone whose behavior is learned—and unpleasant. The departmental diva may fit the social definition of thin-skinned or volatile, but is unlikely to be an HSP. The HSP is usually aware of the feelings of others and reluctant to cause a scene.
SPS occurs in the same frequency in more than 100 species, including ours. It appears equally in both men and women, and in all cultures, countries and ethnic groups. It seems nature needs a certain mix–the 80% who reflect less (the non-sensitive) and act more quickly, and 20% who reflect more and act after greater care and thought. Both are vital to a group, but each type brings something a bit different.
Sensitivity is not the same as shyness, neuroticism, or fussiness. Shyness comes from feeling unwelcome; it is learned. Because sensory-processing sensitivity has only been identified in the last two decades and is not generally well-known, you’re probably unaware of the trait and how it can be an asset in the workplace.
If your location has 100 people, it may have 20 HSPs; they are 20% of the population, and another 22-27% are moderately sensitive.
The person high in sensory processing sensitivity has a brain that functions a bit differently. In fMRI studies they look at an image longer and more of their brain lights up. In other words they are processing more fully each bit of information as it comes from the outside world.
Because of this, they take in more total details in a day’s time and then process the input at greater length. There is a price to be paid. They will tire somewhat faster than others do in the same situation, especially when subjected to intense noise, harsh criticism, or impossible deadlines.
Researcher and social psychologist Elaine Aron, Ph.D. has discovered that understanding this tendency to notice more and ponder more deeply is as important as understanding IQ. In her terms, being non-sensitive is also normal and does not imply that the non-HSP lacks caring, insight or focus.
In 2014, brain scans of HSPs looked at additional areas and showed higher-than average activity in areas related to empathy and awareness of others. These are traits that can be valuable in team-building and customer relationships. So let’s look at how the HSP can be an asset to your department.
Twelve tips that can smooth the way for you and your HSP employee
#1. The HSP may be your ideal employee. Dr. Aron writes…
Typically HSPs are highly conscientious, loyal, vigilant about quality, good with details, intuitive visionaries, often gifted, thoughtful of the needs of clients or consumers, and good influences on the social climate of the workplace. In short they are ideal employees. Every organization needs some.
A management consultant describes benefits to the employer that…
…can lead to remarkably higher quality in areas such as teamwork, communication, customer orientation or innovation and thus create the respective competitive advantages…
Among these positive aspects are an often above-average intuition, natural problem solving competence and creativity, high empathy, distinct diligence and reliability, detailed perception and sense for aesthetics, the ability to deeply reflect and to see the big picture.
Moreover, highly sensitive employees can be important forerunners when it comes to high workloads or change that will eventually affect all other employees, too – similar to winegrowing where often roses are planted at the beginning of a row of vines because they react to environmental influences much earlier.
–Thomas Gelmi, Executive Coaching International, High Sensitivity—Hidden Treasure for Organizations
Ideal employee? Hidden treasures? Yes, if the individual also has the training, skill, and experience for the job. But there is more. Research in genetics has identified several genes that are probably common to many or most HSPs; the upside potential of these gene variants was first recognized in studies with children.
Sensitive children benefit more from good early environments than non-sensitive kids do. Surprisingly, in a number of studies, if children or their parents receive additional training or intervention, only the sensitive children benefit.
In the past few years studies began looking at adults as well. In one study they looked at a particular gene variant which might be a contributor to sensitivity:
Now new research demonstrates that this genetic variation causing lower serotonin to be available in the brain also bestows benefits, such as improved memory of learned material, better decision making, and overall better mental functioning, plus gaining even more positive mental health than others from positive life experiences
-Creatives and inventors: scientists, engineers, actors, artists of all kinds, and creative or analytic business people
Sales personnel? Actors? Creativity in business?
If a sales position has a strong service component or requires a lot of specialized information, the HSP may do well in it. Many actors are highly extroverted, but not all are; some are introverts and some are sensitive. Business problems are sometimes solved by a creative solution; creativity is not limited just to artistic skills.
#3.Emotions and moods are contagious, and you—the boss—set the emotional tone of your department:
A former colleague of mine would unknowingly compel his entire staff to have a secret stand-up meeting just after his arrival each morning. They would assess his mood and steady themselves. If he was agitated and impatient, the most frequent manifestation of his mood, it spread and it meant another day of walking on eggshells. Apparently, the boss had no sense of how much his emotions impacted others and that they were in fact contagious.
#4. Monitor your positive-negative ratio. All of us need three to six positive comments to every negative one to maintain our motivation. Accurate feedback including the negative, according to research with high-performing teams, is an essential part of the mix. It “guards against complacency and groupthink:”
Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to warn us that we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away. But even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.
Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.
#5. Coach them on how you want information presented. If you ask, “How was your weekend?” when you really mean “How many units did your location sell over the weekend?” a new HSP employee may try to answer the social question when what you want is a report. If so, you can say that you need the numbers by 9:30 Monday morning.
If they are also introverts (and 70% of HSPs are), they have to go into long term memory to answer questions that their mind is not working on at the moment. If you see them in the hall and ask for dollar amounts, allow them to say, “I’ll get back to you in ten minutes with that number for the week and the month.”
They are perfectly capable of delivering the data, but like to be prepared and give an accurate answer. Some may communicate most clearly in writing or email.
As they go along and learn your style and which information you need and how you prefer it, the process will smooth out and be more of what you want when.
In meetings they may find it distasteful to compete for airtime with the office‘s most dominant individuals. But loud-and-repeated-often do not necessarily mark the most creative ideas or wisest counsel.
You can make space for a new employee to contribute in a meeting and, better yet, you can tell them beforehand what type of comments or information will be expected.
#6. Calibrate the force of your criticism to fit both the deed and the doer. You may need to check in with them to see if they understood, or devise a follow-up that will mean things are getting done properly. But, you can turn the volume on your comments down considerably and the HSP will still hear you.
#7.Turn your criticism into coaching. Make your suggestion as part of a larger conversation if possible. Criticism can stop HSPs in their tracks, and they may need time to absorb it.
Sometimes the HSP will over-correct and change more than needs to be changed. As an instructor for both HSPs and non-HSPs, I often describe both ends of a continuum, explaining how much of something is too much and how little is too little.
An HSP’s performance may not be as good when they are being watched, evaluated, or timed. Being in the spotlight may not be a comfortable place for them, whether it highlights their weaknesses or shines on their strengths.
#8.Don’t penalize an interviewee or new employee because they don’t share your favorite sport. Many HSPs would rather go hiking in the mountains than play golf. If the person is noise-sensitive, being among thousands of cheering fans may not be his or her idea of a good time.
It seems easier to relate to someone who shares your interests, workstyle and personality type, but having a variety of perspectives can give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
#9. Keep the HSP in the loop. If they know what other teams, departments and branches are doing, they may be able to incorporate ideas they (and you) wouldn’t have had otherwise. They may recognize patterns and pick out blind spots that sometimes others don’t see or identify glitches that need a different perspective to solve.
In addition, feeling part of the larger picture and seeing the boss’ willingness to share news and ideas is highly motivating. A few minutes a day coaching or catching up can mean a lot to any employee and allow them to grow more quickly into the job.
#10.Help HSPs find a quiet space to concentrate. You may not have control over the office floor plan, but perhaps there is a quiet corner or unused conference room where HSPs and introverts can focus free from interruption and distraction.
A mountain of data on the negative effects of open-plan offices has come from many different industries and probably affect HSPs more than most:
Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens.
They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates, releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight “stress” hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive and slow to help others.
#11. Limit interruptions wherever and whenever possible. Multi-tasking is highly over-rated, reducing effectiveness by up to 40% and
…robbing us of frontal lobe brainpower and reducing its fitness. It is one of the most toxic things you can do to your brain and its health. Multi-tasking may be a chief culprit in destroying brain cells. We have all become addicted to technology and multi-tasking. But it is not a healthy addiction. Science demonstrates that the human brain is not wired to perform two tasks at once.
#12. Be a hero to your employees. You, their immediate supervisor, have the greatest influence on their engagement with the work. Gallup research shows that the greater the employee engagement, the better the bottom line:
Employees need the trust and security created by a close employee-manager relationship before they’ll invest in performing their jobs at the highest level. Without strong management support, most employees feel that high performance levels are too risky, require too much work, are blocked by too many barriers, and offer too little reward.
So, on average, one in five of your employees will be highly sensitive. What helps them is usually good for the team. And, of course, one in five of your customers may be HSPs. Who better to help them than those who understand them best?