Meet Darren, a senior director at a large education company. Warm and kindhearted, Darren is the type of leader who takes you out to lunch when you have a bad day and listens to clients and their needs. This is different from other leaders at his organization who lead in a highly critical style and are always out for the sale.
What differentiates Darren from his peers is that he is a highly sensitive person (HSP). This term has recently become more common and refers to about 20% of the population who process the world more deeply. In fact, research points to over 10 gene variants connected with the trait. This means that the brains of highly sensitive people process neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine differently, leading to benefits such as increased perceptiveness, creativity, and careful decision-making.
High sensitivity goes beyond empathy alone. Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, who first discovered the trait, has suggested that it evolved as an “innate survival strategy,” to stay free from harm in prehistoric times. Pausing and observing––a hallmark of high sensitivity––helped these individuals make wiser decisions by picking up on environmental cues and recognizing things that less-sensitive people didn’t.
While we may no longer need to avoid dangers in the wild, high sensitivity is still an invaluable trait: Managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as their top contributors. Yet it’s common for highly sensitive people to struggle with confidence, assuming their qualities make them weird, weak, or fragile. In my own 10 years of coaching sensitive leaders, I can tell you firsthand that it is possible to transform your ability to think and feel deeply into an advantage in the workplace. Here are five ways HSPs can leverage their strengths at work.
1. Highlight what others have missed
An HSP’s brain often captures nuances and details that others gloss over. My advice: Don’t stay quiet in a meeting because you fear your ideas are irrelevant. By being the second or third person to speak, HSPs can highlight what others may have missed.
One way to do this is with the “pass the baton” strategy. In advance, review the agenda and let the organizer know where you’d like to contribute. That way the organizer can call on you (pass the baton) at the appropriate time. Not only does this hold you accountable to actually say something, but it also helps create a system so that others are heard as well.
If you share an idea and it’s overlooked, don’t let the opportunity pass. Someone else may share it and get credit. Instead, speak up after the next person goes to say something like, “What is your impression of what I shared?”
2. Connect the dots
Because of their depth of processing, HSPs are often well suited for roles that require handling a lot of information. Look for ways to synthesize and storytell around the opportunities you see, with a future-focus-forward framework. Identify a trend or pattern you’ve witnessed, how it ties to your work, and a suggestion.
Here’s an example: “There’s been a significant shift toward making facilities more accessible for people with a wide range of physical abilities. Inclusivity is not only important for ethical and legal reasons, but also to improve the overall experience for all our company’s employees and patients. I’d be happy to audit the latest recommendations from the state and convene a planning committee to put in place modifications like ramps, automatic doors, and better signage.”
HSP’s are also often terrific bridge builders, people who tie together disparate parts of an organization. For instance, you may notice that two teams have the same fears about a project. Use this observation as an opportunity to connect people, avoid mistakes, and improve morale. Keep your eyes open for chances to bring people together and make valuable introductions.
3. Capitalize on your people skills
All teams need workers who can help individuals feel heard and cared for. Researchers believe HSPs have more active mirror neurons, which can make them skilled at reading others’ emotions. This strength gives HSPs the opportunity to revive morale on a burned-out team, to navigate conflict before it blows up, and to say what’s not being said.
Going back to Darren, I remember one instance he told me about with a new hire who was smart but underperforming. Human resources was completely puzzled and frustrated, so Darren stepped in. He sat down with the employee and realized she wasn’t lazy or inept—she was timid and afraid. Darren encouraged her to give voice to her discomfort. He didn’t act like a disciplinarian. Instead, he compassionately collaborated with her to reassign certain tasks. They went from potentially losing this person to making them more successful.
4. Create conditions for success
As an HSP, you may need more time to deliberate than others. Block and ruthlessly protect thinking time on your calendar. If you’re a leader, create “office hours”—predefined blocks where employees can drop in with questions—to avoid getting interrupted all hours of the day.
Likewise, be forthcoming and share your preferences and expectations with others. A great way to do this is with a “me manual,” a document that describes how you work, including the best ways to communicate with you, give you feedback, and more.
You must also be a good steward of your nervous system. Avoid overstimulation to keep yourself balanced. That could look like consuming less caffeine (switching to decaf changed my life) or creating a short ritual to ground yourself and release stress before high-stakes meetings.
Fostering this kind of healthy work environment will not only set you up for success but can also set a good example for others.
5. Reclaim your professional brand
Sensitivity is often seen as an undesirable characteristic, but I believe it is going to be one of the most valuable traits in the workplace of the future. A report by the World Economic Forum on the future of jobs states that by 2025, skills that HSPs often exemplify such as critical thinking, problem solving, self-management, working with people, and communication will be most in demand.
While we’ve recently seen shifts toward greater diversity and inclusion, including across neurological differences, we still have a long way to go. For this reason, one of the most important things that HSPs must do is demonstrate and articulate why it is a strength, rather than a weakness.
Speak to the strengths you have such as diplomacy, critical thinking, and empathy. And be sure to discuss your accomplishments during your one-on-one meetings with your boss. Sharing results is great, but when you go a step further and summarize actions you took, the obstacles you overcame, and how your qualities as an HSP helped you to achieve the goal, you can not only improve your position at work, you can also open doors for future HSPs.
Melody Wilding, LMSW, is an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.