What is High Sensitivity?
Maybe you've been wondering what High Sensitivity is, and want to get an idea of the basics. In this post, I'll explain those basics, hopefully in a clear and simple way. This has been done by many others, but it's always useful to have a good explanation to hand. You can find similar information on the FAQ page, and the first post for this blog was about where to find reliable information about High Sensitivity, especially as it relates to the workplace.
High Sensitivity is a genetic temperament found in 15-20% of people and many animal species. That means about 1 in 5 people have this temperament - so you almost certainly know someone who is Highly Sensitive, if you're not yourself.
It was first researched, as a discrete phenomenon, by Elaine and Arthur Aron, psychologists at Stony Brook University in New York. Studies from the beginning of the history of psychology recognised some traits, but either misinterpreted them or attributed them to personality. Elaine's book, The Highly Sensitive Person, published in 1997, is the book which shared the results of their research for the general public, and is the perfect introduction to the temperament for anyone who is Highly Sensitive or has friends or family who are. It's also a great resource for managers and other workplace leaders who need to understand their team members so they can better harness their strengths.
Observing, considering, and reflecting
There are two basic elements to this temperament, out of which all the observable traits arise: observation/awareness, and deep processing.
Highly Sensitive people are what biologists call 'Responsive'. They are, first, highly aware (sensitive to the environment). They take in more information through their senses than those who are non-Sensitive ('Unresponsive'). Not only are they taking in more generally, they're very aware of subtleties. So, they won't just see that someone looks a bit upset, but will notice the set of their mouth, the expression in their eyes, what their hands are doing, the tone of their voice, and the speed at which they're talking.
Secondly, Highly Sensitive people process this information deeply. They're both taking in much more, and processing that increased input more deeply than the rest of the population. This makes sense, given that large amount of data their nervous system has absorbed - it needs more time and care to analyse. During this process, many connections are being formed, gradations of meaning and value are determined, and appropriate responses developed.
Here's how Elaine Aron describes these two basic aspects:
This trait is mainly about having an innate preference to process information more deeply, to compare the present situation as completely as possible to your knowledge of similar situations in the past. It's found in about twenty percent of humans, and it's also found in most other species, ... often in around that percentage.... [E]volution selects for it, not against it.
Definitely a needed ability in the world, wouldn't you say? This refined perception and propensity for thinking before acting is the main reason that High Sensitivity is such an important - essential - trait among humans and other species. Highly Sensitive individuals provide both the innovation and carefulness that societies need to progress in beneficial ways, while maintaining balance.
The Arons describe High Sensitivity's main characteristics with the acronym 'D.O.E.S.', which I'll explain here - I've listed them in the order I find most logical.
For a person to be Highly Sensitive, they must have all of these four characteristics:
If you'd like to see if you're Highly Sensitive, you can take this self-test, developed by Elaine Aron and colleagues: https://hsperson.com/ (this is a page explaining the temperament; you can reach the test from here. There's also a test for children). Another good article by Dr Aron helps you determine whether you are Highly Sensitive.
I have other posts dealing with the benefits which come from this temperament - and the importance of helping those who are Highly Sensitive to thrive at work - so keep browsing, or bookmark the main blog page for later. I'll also be writing more posts about each attribute, with their relevance to the workplace. If you subscribe to my newsletter (see main blog page), you won't miss them.
Performance reviews can be stressful for both managers and their team members. Here are some ways to help it work better when dealing with Highly Sensitive team members - so your organisation can make the most out of their valuable contribution.
1. A little is a lot. Those with a Highly Sensitive temperament will probably do better with feedback given in small amounts over time, rather than a lot all at once. It might be helpful to devise a plan for this with them, so that the traditional performance review is more of a re-cap than a big event.
HS people become overwhelmed when a lot of data is presented at once (because their system is trying to take it all in and process it deeply). Being evaluated for their performance is also highly stressful – for anyone, yes, but even more so for a Highly Sensitive person. This is because they want so much to do well, and are always evaluating their own performance, and their intense awareness and immersive experience.
With these two things coming in one package – lots of data and being observed and judged on their performance – those formal, once or twice per year evaluations are one of the worst ways to actually assess a Highly Sensitive person’s performance and progress.
Good news! HS people are especially conscientious, dedicated, reflective, and self-aware. This makes them perfect candidates for a different approach to feedback. As I suggested above, devise a plan with them for how you can both approach feedback effectively. You might find that you only need to give gentle nudges and suggestions (certainly a lighter load for you). Figure out what works, together, and you’ll be pleased with the result.
2. Because they are especially conscientious, dedicated, reflective, and self-aware, Highly Sensitive team members might deal with problems before you’re even aware of them. Noticing and acknowledging this is a good way for you to recognise their self-reliance, and for them to recognise their own improvement.
3. Go gently. When giving feedback on performance, ask questions first. You want to be sure that you haven’t assumed something – and to find out what they’re aware of. When giving suggestions for improvement, offer encouragement: acknowledge the strengths or skills they have which will help them make the change, and offer support as they do it – continued suggestions, or access to resources, for example. Ideally, remind them that this doesn’t mean their whole performance on the job is in question.
4. Ask them for suggestions (for the workplace), apart from giving them feedback. Their greater awareness and processing of subtleties gives them valuable insight. Take advantage of it.
5. Work together towards goals. Be aware of their unique abilities and encourage them towards their real potential.
I hope that these suggestions have provided some helpful ideas for effectively communicating performance feedback with your Highly Sensitive team members. I’d be interested to hear what happens when you implement (any of) these, so let me know how it goes in the comments.
Looking at the head offices of a certain Sydney toy company, you might think it's a paradise for highly creative people - bold colours, fun elements, lots of unique concepts. There's a giant beanstalk in the foyer, with a cabin for meetings where it reaches the first floor; a replica old-fashioned plane for more meetings/study. They're considered innovative and groundbreaking, and their toy concept is based on fun (obviously). The workplace they've created here reflects that, deliberately. 'Ordinary? No thanks. Expect the funexpected.' Their motto for their products is also the motto for their workplace:
'[We're] all about the Superhappy – the eyes wide, the screech and rip-it-open, the OMG I can’t believe it, the WOW! This doesn’t stop with our groundbreaking toys, it’s lived and breathed every day in our offices.'i
And although it's a really nice concept for an organisation to take such pains to create an environment where their employees can be at their best - a great concept, in fact - I think this copmany has actually missed the point with these elements. This is my take on what I've seen about their Sydney HQ, based on what highly creative people really need.
Effects of office environment and culture
First, does the office environment need to reflect what the toys are? It might seem an obvious connection, but I don't think it is. The creators of a product don't have to be working with an 'eyes-wide, ... screech and rip-it-open, ... WOW!' process in order to produce a concept that delivers those things. It would also be a very draining way to work. And if everyone's expected to show that spirit in order to prove that they're really creative and dedicated to the company's vision, what sort of situation is that going to create? Consider these quotes from their website about company values:
We keep our energy up so there’s a great buzz around the place all the time – helping to foster great ideas and ensuring strong productivity.
We’re a family who is Outrageously playful, with Wild imagination.
We know there is no ‘I’ in team and are committed to hitting team goals way out of the park.
And although they also say that 'we are non-judgmental, value diversity of thinking and the benefits this brings, and are open to all wow ideas,' that sentence begins with: 'We elicit infectious enthusiasm'. This contradicts the rest of the sentence. The message of their company values to me is clearly that their people are expected to have a certain approach and persona.
While I love the really clear goals and values they've established, that they're all about living what they profess to do, these quotes concern me. What I feel is a pressure to be 'infectiously enthusiastic', in an outward, evident way; always on fire and performing so others can see your enthusiasm and playfulness; making sure you demonstrate, through your interactions and participation in company activities, that you're 'outrageously playful', and always being high-energy. It's exhausting just to think about! And while there are probably some who really do thrive in an environment like that, it means one of two things.
Either the company's going to attract and keep only that sort of person (the kind who thrive in that environment) - always on show, high-energy, evidently playful, etc. - and that's going to reduce the range of creative output (because there's only that type of person working there), or they're going to have a team of people among whom are those trying desperately to keep up this appearance. They're going to be drained, creatively hampered (because they don't actually have the right conditions for creativity - see below - too much of their energy's going on this appearance, and they're trying to be creative in the way that's expected), and will likely burn out quickly. They might also feel like they're not as creative as they should be, even though they probably are, and might end up feeling very discouraged about their career potential.
What creativity is and isn't, and what really drives it
One misconception is that creativity thrives in places with lots of people - 'collaboration' - and lots of visual stimuli. That we need stimuli constantly around in order to have creative ideas and be productive with them.
This isn't actually true. Creativity comes from input that the brain receives over time - little pieces, coming in little by little. Much of it isn't conscious. Our brains connect these pieces, and eventually, things click into place and we see something clearly or feel inspiration which illuminates these connections. It's a process which happens naturally; it's not forced, and it doesn't come from deliberately-placed stimuli.
In fact, some of the most creative people have Highly Sensitive temperaments. Being aware of subtleties and processing them deeply means that we notice a lot, and gain many insights from how our systems process that information. Being highly aware is a key aspect of creativity. Here's what Scott Barry Kaufmann and Carolyn Gregoire have to say about it:
'People who are adept in the observation aspect of creativity... tend to be higher in cognitive flexibility, which allows them to move fluidly between different modes of thought and to consider multiple approaches and solutions to a problem. There are two reasons that observation is an important driver of creativity. First, it's strongly related to the openness to experiences personality domain, as both are characterized by a drive for novelty and exploration. And more than other mindfulness skills, observation is associated with the ability to take note of the contents of our internal and external landscape.' (Wired to Create, 2016, p. 120)
Dutch psychologist Matthijs Baas and colleagues investigated how four key mindfulness skills predict creativity. Of these, only observation 'was consistently linked with heightened creativity. Baas' team concludes... "To be creative, you need to have, or be trained in, the ability to carefully observe, notice, or attend to phenomena that pass your mind's eye"' (Wired to Create, ibid.).
This is why Highly Sensitive people are perfectly set up for heightened creativity. But that insight is coming all the time. It doesn't need - and is, in fact, harmed by - intense or constant stimuli. We are always aware, always noticing; what seems unremarkable to someone else is experienced quite differently by a High Sensory person. We're seeing potential and interest in things no one else does - but it's happening naturally.
Here's another quotation from Wired to Create to explain:
'To highly sensitive people, as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck suggested, the world may appear to be more colourful, dramatic, tragic, and beautiful. Sensitive people often pick up on the little things in the environment that others miss, see patterns where others see randomness, and find meaning and metaphor in the minutiae of everyday life.... If we think of creativity as "joining the dots" in some way, then sensitive people experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection' between them. (pp. 125-6)
So, coming back to the toy company: their visually stimulating environment, meant to enhance creativity, in fact misses the point in two ways:
1. Highly creative people are going to pick up inspiration from everywhere. Adding these 'wow' elements looks impressive, but is it really needed? It seems to me that it would, in fact, make the connections described above harder, because it's too 'loud' and busy, covering the actual thought process that leads to creative inspiration.
2. People who are this aware are taking in so much and processing it so deeply that they need less environmental stimuli, not more. If they're taking in from everyday life so much more than a less-responsive person, anything extra becomes potentially detrimental to their ability to process clearly.
What highly creative people really need is the right environment to process all their incoming information - not information itself (which we've seen that they get anyway). So, what does the 'right environment' look like? I don't have all the answers to that, but here are some:
That's my take on the at-first-glance 'wow & amazing' Sydney HQ of this creative company. I hope it's given you some points for reflection about your ideas around creativity and what creative people need at work in order to.... be creative.
If you'd like me to come and evaluate your workplace for elements such as these, with the perspective of a Highly Sensitive person, let's talk! You can send me a message here. I specialise in assessing the environment and processes in workplaces according to how well they support those with High Sensory Intelligence to thrive. You'll end up with targeted insights and guidance for creating the right conditions to get the most from their valuable gifts.
Often, what we see in Highly Sensitive people is the result of too much unhelpful stimulation - that state of being overwhelmed. But this is a really poor indicator of what High Sensitivity is. And the reason they get there is because they're living in a world set up for everyone who's non-Sensitive. So what, really, is this temperament? What are its gifts - and how do we recognise them and allow them to flourish?
In this recording, I discuss the following:
- alternative terms for the Highly Sensitive temperament (*note: Willow MacIntosh - I couldn't think of his name at the time; classic Highly Sensitive blank-mind syndrome in the moment - is the champion of the term 'High Sensory Intelligence' mentioned here)
- misunderstandings about what sensitivity means
- what it actually means
- how the Sensitive temperament leads to unique gifts (an insight into the process)
- why it's in everyone's best interests to help Highly Sensitive people to thrive
- where the overstimulation that's often the most visible feature of the temperament comes from - and why this isn't what their 'sensitivity' is really about
- how to see past this: my goal
- benefits and reasons for reducing unhelpful stimulation for HS people at work
This recording was made using my computer's microphone, in the middle of summer, so there's fan noise in the background. I hope it's not too distracting - I think it is at first, and then you become used to it. As I don't have a dedicated podcast, I'm not focusing on recordings and don't have a separate microphone. I am considering it - but for now, I'm practising, and the message is the most important thing. I hope that message comes across, despite the imperfect nature of the recording.
There are two options for listening: the weblink below to the track on SoundCloud, and a downloadable audio file.
Here are some general recommendations for creating a physical environment at work which reduces some of the negative stimulation that Highly Sensitive people might be experiencing - increasing their wellbeing, productivity, and beneficial connection with others.
ARTIFICIAL & FLUORESCENTS
Natural light is best for us all, but HS people need it more than most. We really struggle with high levels of artificial light – especially fluorescents. The negative effects of fluorescent lighting have been revealed in various studies - although claims are a little controversial. Two main reasons are that:
(1) They emit only a small spectrum of light, in comparison to the full colour spectrum that the Sun does - at the blue end.
(2) They tend to flicker, whether it's observable or not.
Thought.Co has an article which lists these negative effects and their cause. (Some of these aren't the sole cause of such results, but a contributing factor or found in the same situations as other more influential factors).
If these aren't of much concern, or you feel skeptical about them, consider the energy, lifespan and similar aspects, as explained here. As this article notes, anyone who has environmental sensitivities (the best known are those with light sensitivities and autism disorders) will be affected by the lighting in their workplace, and fluorescents are the worst offenders here.
Remember that Highly Sensitive people respond more to everything - good and bad. Any change which is helpful to them will result in increased performance and wellbeing beyond that of others.
HS people are also sensitive to bright light – so sitting near large windows, of the type in many high-rise office buildings, which lack blinds to reduce the glare and level of brightness, is unhelpful.
Introduce plants into the office space. If you have some, add more. Let HS team members take care of them – and even choose them. They’ll take all the variables into account, and will be consistent with their care. The plants don’t need to be expensive, and will give a good return for investment due to their positive effects.
Create outdoor break areas which are:
(a) away from busy roads,
(b) truly free of cigarette smoke (have a completely separate area for smokers, where the smoke doesn’t affect other break areas),
(c) quiet and peaceful (you might have one for those who want to chat and interact, and others for those who want downtime),
(d) with clean, relatively comfortable seating, and
(e) ideally in a natural space, or at least with some garden areas (this means actual garden – visually attractive and varied, not lawn and a few low plants near a carpark). If your workplace is close to a park or two, bonus!
Do these sound like luxuries? Exposure to the natural environment - plants, quiet, nature sounds - is vital for us all, but especially so for those with High Sensory Intelligence. We take in so much through the day that our senses need space for rest and replenishment. Break areas which are truly a break from the office environment - including, where needed, from colleagues - will increase your High Sensory team members' effectiveness.
These are a few inexpensive and not terribly difficult steps you can take to help make your workplace more HSP-friendly. You don't need to have a garden like the one above (it's part of the Roma Street Parklands, so I don't think any of us will measure up to it!) or the most modern outfitted office. Just do what you can - and remember, every step you take in this direction will lead to improved performance from your Highly Sensitive team members, with all they have to give.
For more individualised and comprehensive recommendations - and an assessment of your actual workplace - a bespoke consultation is the answer.
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.