Why Sensitivity Can Be a Superpower at Work

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By tapping into your heightened awareness of others’ emotional states, you can learn what your employees need and guide them effectively.

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You see an email from your co-worker pop up asking about a project you’re working on together. While typing your response, you hear a notification go off on your phone, alerting you to a message from your manager about a client. As you make a mental note to get to that later, your phone starts ringing, and you see it’s a call from your direct report, who just started last week and is trying to get up to speed. The chimes and pings are starting to make you feel a little overwhelmed, so you put your devices on do-not-disturb mode. In the blissful silence that follows, you’re able to give your colleague the information they need, provide your manager details regarding the client, and offer thoughtful guidance to your new employee.

This is a common scenario in the modern workplace, where we’re often asked to juggle many tasks at once. The problem isn’t necessarily the long task list but the endless stimulation we get from our environment. Some people may not be bothered by it, while others become so troubled they can’t focus at all.

What determines which camp you fall into is sensitivity: an innate trait that exists in all of us to varying degrees, not unlike extraversion and introversion. Using questions like, “Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input?” and “Do other people’s moods affect you?” researchers estimate that approximately 30% of the population fall on the high end of sensitivity, 40% land somewhere in the middle, and the other 30% are considered low in sensitivity.

With all that’s gone on in the world over the past few years, now is the moment for sensitivity to shine. Burnout has gone mainstream, and employee retention is a pressing priority for many companies. Even so, managers underestimate how much employees are struggling with their well-being: According to a recent Deloitte survey, one out of three employees and executives reported struggling with fatigue and mental health. This is a gap that highly sensitive leaders can fill by tapping into their natural empathy and heightened awareness of others’ emotions.

Debunking stereotypes of sensitivity

When you think of a sensitive person, you may imagine someone whose feelings are easily hurt. But that’s not really what this trait is all about. Sensitivity describes how responsive you are to external stimuli, such as visuals and sounds, and how deeply you think about things. People who are sensitive or highly sensitive are more prone to become overstimulated when there’s a lot going on in their environment. In unfamiliar situations, they like to pause and take time to process their thoughts. They’re also naturally more empathetic because they react strongly to others’ moods and feelings. That’s why people who have higher sensitivity show greater brain activation in regions involved in attention, action planning, and empathy.

At first glance, these characteristics seem to be the opposite of desirable leadership qualities. After all, capable leaders often have to keep a clear head no matter how chaotic their surroundings are, make decisions quickly, and be willing to jump into novel situations to capitalize on emerging opportunities. But sensitive people do have strengths that make them effective leaders, especially in today’s working world. A Catalyst survey shows that empathy, one of the key characteristics of sensitive individuals, in leadership drives innovation and engagement in the workplace: Sixty-one percent of people with highly empathetic senior leaders reported often/always being innovative at work, while 76% reported often/always being engaged.

What’s more, sensitive individuals possess other traits that are crucial for success as a manager, according to research. More sensitive people tend to pick up on subtle social and emotional cues that are easily missed by others, such as changes in facial expressions and behaviors. Since they prefer to think things through and use lessons they learned in the past to inform future planning, they can keep their eye on the big picture, avoid past mistakes, and build on previous successes.

Here are three ways managers and leaders can leverage their sensitivity to boost employee well-being.

Recognize signs of burnout and take action

In the same Deloitte survey, professionals said one of the major hurdles to prioritizing their well-being is finding time to unplug from work, whether it’s taking a multiday vacation or short breaks throughout a workday. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that getting away from work for a few days lowers perceived job stress and burnout. A more recent study found even taking short breaks called microbreaks, which last only 10 minutes, can boost energy and performance.

As a sensitive leader, you can encourage employees showing signs of exhaustion and burnout — such as sending curt responses to co-workers’ messages when they used to be friendly and warm — to take a coffee break or consider using their vacation days. Being proactive in approaching your employees not only shows that you care about them, but it also opens an opportunity to discuss and remove barriers that may be preventing your employees from taking a well-deserved break.

Promote inclusion

You’ve likely noticed that some people dominate at meetings, while others prefer to take notes and listen. An inclusive workplace strives to incorporate as many different points of view as possible, and you can help facilitate that as a sensitive leader. If someone routinely shares great ideas during your one-on-one meetings but doesn’t say much in larger meetings, you can bring that up to them and discuss the best ways to help them participate. Another way to make sure everyone feels valued and included is to spotlight the contribution of every team member when you celebrate successes. Besides building employees’ confidence, inclusive leadership has also been found to reduce their emotional exhaustion.

Tailor feedback to each employee

Sensitive leaders can typically sense someone’s true personality since they pay close attention to others’ actions and responses in different situations. Use that knowledge to your advantage when providing feedback to different employees. If you perceive someone to be more critical of their own work and shy away from speaking up at meetings, you’ll want to make sure your feedback highlights their strengths and deliver your comments in private rather than a group setting. Tailoring your feedback delivery style according to what works best for each employee shows that you value them and are invested in their professional development.

Sensitivity is an asset, not a liability, as some people may believe. By tapping into your heightened awareness of others’ emotional states, you can learn what your employees need and guide them effectively. Not only will you build a more creative and engaged team, but you’ll also help your employees feel more fulfilled and take ownership of their professional growth.

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