We’re conditioned to think that Alpa personalities get ahead at work. Those who scoot up the career ladder with ease, we believe, are arrogant, loud and directive – in fact, people with psychopathic tendencies are assumed to make better leaders.
But, at a time when our personal and professional lives are colliding more and more, a more nuanced set of management traits may be called for. And within that scope lies the unsung skillsets of so-called Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).
A term coined by Jungian psychotherapist Dr Elaine Aron in her seminal book The Highly Sensitive Person, HSP describes a type of person who is highly attuned to their internal and external environments.
Around 15-20% of the population count as HSPs. According to the UK’s Counselling Directory, the acute sensitivity it brings can present challenges in “our bright and fast-paced society”. For example, “you may find you’re easily overwhelmed, struggle to manage stress and need more alone time to recalibrate”.
But it’s also a characteristic that comes with a series of key advantages, including a rich inner life, sensitivity to subtleties and emotional reactivity.
It’s this last ability that emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf picks up on in a discussion about the benefits that HSPs bring to the workplace this week.
“HSPs are very caring, empathetic, and emotionally responsive to the needs of others,” he writes in an article for Fast Company.
“Heightened perception, insight, and intuition allow the Highly Sensitive Person to notice nonverbal cues and pick up subtle nuances. Due to a higher level of sensitivity, when HSPs are in the right environment, they tend to thrive and exhibit many valuable workplace traits such as enhanced perception, empathy, creativity, and detail-orientation.”
What this means in real-world terms is that the HSPs are highly attuned to the feelings of others at work – they’ll notice if a team member is down, or they may be able to preempt tension, even without anyone saying anything.
“My experience with my clients and seeing where they struggled was largely not because of skills or technology, but because of the lack of a culture of empathy that allowed them to do their jobs,” explains the company’s CEO Michael Brenner. “That really got in the way.
“We think we need to be mean in order to get ahead. But it’s really the opposite,” he added. “It’s the leaders that focus on empathy. It’s the companies that focus on a culture of empathy that drive more innovation and more really frankly, rewarding careers for the people that work there.”
If your manager is able ask the right questions about how you are doing and the challenges that lie in your way, you – along with you entire team – are more likely to feel appreciated as a result.
“I think my lack of ego has made me a better manager and team player,” says digital manager Josie.* “I always make a point of celebrating everyone’s achievements (rather than singling out my own). I’ve been thanked by employees for my empathy and understanding, and my trustworthiness and willingness to help out means I’ve made some excellent friends over the years, too.”
Not only does higher levels empathy bring happiness to the workplace, it’s also a channel of happiness in and of itself.
A 2019 study from the University of Oulu in Finland found that compassion was linked to a greater sense of wellbeing, a more positive mood, stronger social connections and increased life satisfaction.
So the next time you worry about being “too sensitive” in the workplace, remember that sensitivity comes with a powerful sidekick of empathy. And that will benefit everyone.
*Names have been changed