Managing Highly Sensitive People
Valuing Quiet Time
Yvonne manages a small, successful team in a global marketing company. One of her team members, Rafi, is quiet, calm and hardworking, and he always meets his deadlines. So, she's surprised when he schedules a meeting with her to discuss his high stress levels.
During the meeting, Rafi explains how working on several tasks at once makes him feel frazzled, and how group work and last-minute changes put him on edge. He says that he sometimes feels stressed by his environment, particularly when there are bright lights or changes in temperature, noise levels, or even other people's moods.
Rafi understands that it can be tough to deal with team members who respond differently than everyone else, so he's pleased when Yvonne asks him whether he identifies as a "highly sensitive" person, and asks how she can make him feel more comfortable at work.
They discuss ways to shorten his meetings, reduce environmental stressors, and delegate some tasks. Yvonne recognizes that she has a capable and diligent person on her team, who simply feels emotions and sensations more acutely than others.
In this article, we'll explore what being "highly sensitive" means, and we'll look at how you can identify individuals with this trait. We'll explore some simple approaches you can use to retain valuable people, increase productivity, and bring out the best in your most sensitive team members.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Dr Elaine Aron coined the term "highly sensitive" in her 1997 book, "The Highly Sensitive Person." She explains that high sensitivity, or sensory processing sensitivity, is an inherited, genetic trait affecting approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population.
Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, have a sensitive nervous system, so they absorb and process more information than average, and reflect on it more deeply. This trait's often mistaken for introversion and emotionality, but an Aron study showed it to be unrelated.
It can also be confused with weakness, unsociability, insecurity, fearfulness, neuroticism, depression, or anxiety. However, HSPs are often highly capable, diligent and aware people, who are just more attuned to their environment and others' feelings than most people.
How to Identify a Highly Sensitive Person
It's not always easy to recognize an HSP, and many people aren't aware that they have this trait. According to Aron, the main characteristic of high sensitivity is a depth of processing. This means that HSPs absorb more information from their surroundings than others and they analyze it more deeply, often subconsciously.
These steps are iterative, so once you've completed them all, you repeat the process and refine your observations, interpretations and interventions until you're satisfied with the solution.
A study by Bhavini Shrivastava says that people with sensory processing sensitivity feel more stressed by their work environment than most, but their managers rate them as the best performers.
Although too much sensory or social stimulation can overwhelm HSPs and make them stressed and withdrawn, they are conscientious, creative, hardworking, and dedicated individuals. Aron says that HSPs won't have a meltdown at work because they tend to deal with stress privately, by spending their free time alone to recharge.
A recent study by Aron and her colleagues reveals that HSPs also demonstrate awareness, empathy, action planning, advanced cognitive processing, and responsiveness to others' needs. This makes them acutely aware of their surroundings, and particularly sensitive to stimuli that affect the senses.
For example, HSPs can become overwhelmed when their environment is too noisy, bright or cold, and they can become stressed by large groups of people, lots of talking, chaos and clutter. They are also highly aware of other people's moods and feelings, and can often empathize deeply with those emotions.
According to Aron, around 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extraverts. These individuals feel energized by being around people, but they can still become overwhelmed by too much stimulation.
Benefits of Highly Sensitive People at Work
Chances are, someone on your team or in your organization is highly sensitive. Many managers struggle to see HSPs' potential because of their quiet, non-confrontational nature, but they can be a great asset to your team. In her book, Aron gives a few reasons why:
- Awareness. An HSP's sensitivity allows them to notice subtleties and distractions in their surroundings. This makes them aware of what works and what doesn't, both for themselves and for others.
- Insightfulness. These individuals are aware of potential "people problems" before they become serious, and have the insight to know how to deal with them.
- Empathy. HSPs are often intuitive and empathic, and they understand people and their motives deeply. This means that they can interpret and resolve interpersonal problems effectively. HSPs dislike conflict and they care about others' feelings and needs, which allows them to create harmonious working environments.
- Conscientiousness. HSPs tend to be hardworking, careful and vigilant about quality. They are able to see the details and the big picture, and they can visualize different possibilities.
- Talented. Highly sensitive people can often be creative, perceptive, excellent communicators, and gifted, according to research by Rizzo-Sierra, Leon-Sarmiento and Leon-S.
Strategies for Managing Highly Sensitive People
Let's explore six approaches that you can use to motivate your highly sensitive team member, reduce their stress levels, and keep them engaged.
1. Accept Highly Sensitive People
It can be tempting to try to help an HSP on your team overcome their sensitivity. However, this often-used tactic may make them feel ashamed, rejected, inadequate, and increasingly stressed, despite your good intentions.
Different HSPs are sensitive to different things, and they aren't able to change their triggers. For example, loud noises may be unbearable for some, while emotional tension may affect others.
So, make sure that you're open, receptive and understanding, and work hard to create and sustain a positive and relaxed workplace culture for your highly sensitive team member. And, be careful not to let their quiet demeanor influence your appraisal of their performance.
2. Address Sources of Stress
Ask your highly sensitive team member what overwhelms or irritates them. For example, this could be things like feeling annoyed by a humming fan, exhausted by long meetings, or upset by office gossip. Try to deal with these problems straight away, rather than dismissing their concerns.
HSPs care about their work and can be sensitive to criticism, so offer them positive feedback as well as negative. Where possible, let them know that you appreciate their traits, and clearly explain how they benefit the organization.
3. Let People Work Alone
Many HSPs are also introverts, which means that they do their best work alone. So, allow your highly sensitive team member to work on their own wherever possible, and schedule in regular breaks for them to recharge during teamwork or group events.
Since HSPs are highly aware of their environment, they tend to feel uncomfortable and perform poorly when you observe them working, micromanage them, or put them on the spot. They may also perceive reminders or "checking in" as a lack of trust. So, give your highly sensitive team member space to work alone, and make it clear that you're available when they need support.
4. Provide a Quiet Place to Work
Offer your highly sensitive team member a calm working environment, wherever possible. This could be a quiet part of the office or a conference room, or you could allow them to work from home, if appropriate. They may also appreciate quiet time first thing in the morning to prepare for the day.
Encourage your HSP to take regular breaks during the day, especially after a group activity, as they may feel overwhelmed. A day of meetings, events or networking will likely take its toll on a highly sensitive person's health and well-being, so allow them some time to recharge alone between social gatherings.
When you do this, you will likely boost their productivity and allow them to come up with creative ideas and innovations that can benefit your team and organization.
Other team members might see your actions as preferential treatment. So, make an effort to treat everyone equally and accommodate people's individual working and environmental preferences, where possible.
5. Give Advance Warning
Many HSPs manage overstimulation by preparing or developing routines, plans and strategies for upcoming events. While you can't always prevent sudden schedule changes, try to give your highly sensitive team member as much notice as possible before meetings or activities. If they do become flustered when last-minute changes occur, give them time to recover their composure.
Everyone has their own strengths, weaknesses and needs, and some people require more stimulation in their environment than others. So, ask each of your team members what would make their working environment more comfortable. When you understand each person's sensitivity level, you can optimize their potential, talents, well-being, and performance.
6. Encourage Your HSPs to Take Action
In her book, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person, Dr Barrie Jaeger suggests that there are also a few things you can encourage your HSP to do to help themselves at work. For example, if they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, you could suggest that they spend a few minutes alone and takes some deep breaths.
You might also encourage them to take solo walks during their lunch break, and to listen to soothing music with earphones. If they learn to become aware of what overwhelms them, they can avoid those triggers or take breaks afterward to get back on track.
High sensitivity is a genetic, inherited trait that is often misunderstood and confused with shyness or anxiety.
However, highly sensitive people simply process information more deeply, feel overstimulated more easily, experience greater empathy, and are more aware of subtleties and changes in their surroundings than other team members.
Highly sensitive people are creative, conscientious and empathic, and they can be a great asset to an organization. As a manager, you can boost your highly sensitive team member's productivity and well-being by being accepting, and giving them space and time alone to do their best work.
When HSPs can work in quiet, calm and supportive environments, they can be the most productive members of the team.
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