I've written a few posts about what High Sensitivity is; this infographic summarises the main points about the temperament. It's an easily-shareable resource that can be used to give someone a quick overview, when you need to present the idea, such as before suggesting a workshop for your workplace.
I'm including a link to the file below the image, so you can download and share it, as needed. I hope you find this resource useful - and interesting!
If you're a teacher or school leader, this blog post is for you.
Highly Sensitive children are deeply affected by various environmental and situational factors - positively and negatively, depending on the quality of that environment.
They tend to be conscientious, creative, reflective and thoughtful. They will be concerned about getting things right, doing well, pleasing you, their teacher, and not getting into difficult situations with other students.
They need gentle encouragement to take risks, awareness of their real ability (which might be greater than it seems), and a few adjustments to their environment so that they can do and be their best. This can make the difference between mediocre performance and excellence, and between languishing, or the experience of just trying to get through each school day, and thriving in the joy of knowledge, belonging and achievement.
Here are a few resources that will help you to better understand, identify, and help the Highly Sensitive children in your care.
I hope that these resources will be of real use to you. I know that if there are Highly Sensitive children in your classes - and it's quite likely that there are, given that they make up 20% of the population - then knowing about it, and supporting them in a way that helps them thrive will be potentially life-changing for them. And I think you'll see positive differences in your whole class for it.
If you're a school leader, then you definitely have Highly Sensitive children in your school. I think I can say this with confidence - it would be very unusual if a temperament which 20% of people have wasn't represented in a whole school.... unless it's a very small school!
I offer workshops specially designed for the school context. You can choose between a shorter, introductory workshop (more of a presentation, but with helpful details and recommendations), or a slightly longer, more comprehensive and interactive workshop, with more bespoke recommendations. You'll find all the details at the link above - or see my Services page for an overview.
I would also love to hear about any discoveries or encouraging achievements you make in this process. Please share them with me by filling out a contact form here.
Highly Sensitive managers are one way your organisation can solve the problem of managers with poor 'soft skills'.
Managers can make or break a person’s experience at work, due to the close contact they have with team members, and the effect this has on their daily work lives. You’ve heard that people leave managers, more than they leave jobs. So, having managers who work well with their teams is essential to retaining your best people.
In these times of increased movement between jobs, due to re-assessing working conditions and alignment with purpose, retaining your best talent is one of your top priorities. How do you do it? By offering more incentives and perks? Increasing salaries? There are several approaches to take, which you’re no doubt already working on. Here, I offer one, perhaps surprising, way to ensure you have managers (or HODs, or supervisors) who excel in ‘soft skills’ – the human aspect of managing well: choose managers with Highly Sensitive temperaments.
A recent study by the Australian College of Applied Professions found these results:
"65% say their manager struggles with soft skills…. The biggest perceived gaps" are in empathy (27% - i.e. 27% of employees in the study said their manager struggles with empathy), effective communication (25%), active listening (21%), flexibility (21%), and emotional intelligence (20%).
In addition, "1 in 2 remote employees are concerned about interacting with their manager when they return to the workplace. This is due to managers’:
65% is a concerning majority. You might consider improving these gaps through training – but how effective is training in changing a person’s ingrained habits and even personality? Some of these interpersonal skills can be taught more effectively than others, such as active listening and effective communication. A person can learn to be more empathetic. But emotional intelligence is a long-term learning process, and empathy and flexibility are also the result of long practice, and a strong desire to develop them.
A different option, which overcomes these difficulties, is to hire and promote Highly Sensitive managers – and make sure their workplace has the conditions which allow them to thrive. People with a Highly Sensitive temperament are naturally empathetic, deeply interested in and responsive to others and aware of their needs, notice subtleties - including how someone is feeling and little differences in their condition - and consider ‘the big picture’. All of these contribute to emotional intelligence and the ability to respond flexibly and appropriately to team members’ ideas, needs, and talents.
You wouldn't want all managers to have this same temperament; but having a good mix will help eliminate some of these too-common difficulties between managers and their teams. A good strategy is to aim for the same average ratio (of Highly Sensitive to non-Sensitive) as naturally exists in the population: around 20%.
How many Highly Sensitive managers does your organisation have? Are there systems in place to identify and support them, so that their innate gifts can shine and be put to excellent use?
Soft skills aren’t the only area Highly Sensitive people excel in. Here’s a list of some of the other benefits they bring to their workplaces, especially when able to thrive.
Photo 1 by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
You’ve probably heard about serotonin. It’s one of the two major neurotransmitters (the other is dopamine, which I’ll write a little about another time). How much a person has available depends on genetic factors.
Every gene has 3 possible variations – ‘short-short’, ‘short-long’, and ‘long-long’ (how’s your high school biology memory going?). There’s a gene called the serotonin transporter gene. Its ‘short-short’ variation, called the ‘s-allele’, gives a person less available serotonin.
Now, you might think immediately that this is a bad thing – after all, serotonin is about feelings, isn’t it? Less serotonin = depression. Right? Wrong , actually. This is what researchers used to think, because SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor) drugs help alleviate depression. But this is, in fact, a ‘very inconsistent link’, says clinical psychologist and researcher, Elaine Aron. Further research has found that serotonin isn’t linked to depression, per se. So what is it linked to?
Having less available serotonin, due to the s-allele variation, isn’t about depression itself, but about sensitivity to good or bad environments. (Does this sound familiar?). S-allele carriers ‘took substantially longer to reflect before making difficult choices’, and were ‘emotionally risk-averse’ (more careful) when there was a low probability of winning, but emotionally eager to take a risk when there was a high probability of winning.
So, people with this s-allele are more careful decision-makers; more reflective and thoughtful – more cautious – when making complex decisions and considering risks. Overall, this gene variation seems to lead to better decision-making.
And what’s really interesting is that about the same percentage of people carry this variation as have a Highly Sensitive temperament. One of the markers of this temperament is… more careful, reflective decision-making. People with this temperament have a strong ‘pause-to-check’ impulse – stopping to think before acting, when risks are involved or it’s a complex decision in other ways.
On the other hand, they can have a strong curiosity impulse – the desire to discover, learn, and take creative risks. So, unless they’ve had very difficult childhoods or other traumatic past experiences, these two impulses can serve them very well, balancing each other and leading to a well-rounded person who is both creative/innovative and sensibly cautious when it matters.
Doesn’t someone like this sound like a highly valuable person to have around? A gift – and a protection – in an organisation aiming to operate smoothly and successfully? How are the Highly Sensitive people in your organisation going? Do you know who they are? Do you know how to help them play this vital role?
I help organisations learn about the gifts and needs of sensitivity, identify who has the Highly Sensitive temperament, and create workplaces where people with these gifts can thrive.
My workshops and consultations will help you answer these questions, and begin to truly harness the unique gifts of the Highly Sensitive people in your workplace.
A well-functioning society depends on many things, but one of these is the balance between less-sensitive and more-sensitive individuals. There's a reason why the ratio of Highly Sensitive to non-Sensitive people remains constant at around 15-20%.
Let's look at a helpful overview from a group of experienced researchers into this temperament, then I'll put it into some plainer language.
High Sensitivity 'is a genetically-based trait associated with greater sensitivity and responsivity to environmental and social stimuli.'
What does that mean?
High Sensitivity or Responsivity is an evolutionary adaptation - something selected for - that is beneficial to a society or group, because those who have it are more aware of subtle things which influence survival and well-being, and which those without it more often miss. It allows people to connect better with each other, understand and help each other more effectively, and co-operate as a result.
It's called a 'stable trait' here because this distinguishes it from disorders (that's why the title says, 'seemingly related disorders' - these are disorders which can seem to be related to High Sensitivity, but are not), which are not stable traits.
‘Deep integration’ means that Highly Responsive people apply all the little pieces of disparate information to form a whole picture of understanding. So, where most people are letting a lot of information 'bounce off' them, Highly Responsive people are taking it in, then deeply integrating each of those pieces of information with their existing knowledge. This creates insights which no-one else is getting. They have more information at their disposal, and they know how to use it.
(They are, uniquely, details and big-picture people!)
A Highly Sensitive person will tend to have a very good memory, since they have so deeply integrated the details of what they’ve heard, read, and experienced. The sensory data that they absorb isn’t floating around in its original form, but has been connected and made meaningful. This cements it into their minds, so that when the time comes where it’s needed, the applicable knowledge arises, available to apply to the situation at hand.
* The exception to this ability to apply highly relevant, detailed information to the situation at hand is when a Highly Sensitive person is in a situation where the stress response occurs – what we call ‘fight-or-flight’. This bypasses that excellent ability to recall and apply salient information, and creates a ‘deer in the headlights’ experience instead. This is one reason why it’s SO important to have conditions which help Highly Responsive people to remain calm and able to take in, integrate, and recall everything that they are uniquely and so well able to do.
What Highly Sensitive people find challenging at work: unhelpful elements of workplace culture and environmentRead Now
Hiding at work
It's common for Highly Sensitive people to feel like they need to hide their temperament at work. This can be because there's no space for it to be acknowledged or used - there's just one acceptable and expected way for employees/leaders to act and do their work - or because it's misunderstood as something negative which needs to be changed. There are often misconceptions about what an effective leader or productive employee is: their appearance, approach, personality, interactions with colleagues or customers, and the speed with which they can work and produce excellent results.
The tragedy of Highly Sensitive people hiding their temperament at work is that their valuable gifts are not only under-used, but seen as problems, and repressed. One respondent said, echoing others, 'I've never worked in a place that aligned with my HSP (Highly Sensitive person) traits'. What a difference it would make if more managers understood this bounty at their fingertips, and could turn the languishing of their Highly Sensitive team members into thriving!
* This is not to imply that all Highly Sensitive people are languishing at work. Many do very well, producing consistently good results. But even they have more to offer - so much more, often - and this potential is, I feel, greatly untapped. Many others are languishing.
No matter what the trends say, open-plan offices are a terrible situation for most people, & especially for the Highly Sensitive. Plastic (see-through!) dividers don't change that. Some of the elements here work - natural light, good blinds and ergonomic chairs. But the lack of privacy and space, clutter, and lack of noise control is a recipe for over-stimulation & poor performance.
Why is it useful to know the experiences of Highly Sensitive people in the workplace?
1. They are often the first to experience adverse effects from an un-ideal environment/situation. Policies, approaches, physical and cultural environment: Highly Sensitive people notice and respond to them earlier and more intensely. They provide an indication of what's not working, and what will begin to have a much greater (and costly) effect on the organisation soon.
2. Differential susceptibility:
Highly Sensitive people are highly responsive to their environment. Things which are slightly negative to others can be more intensely negative for them. Positive changes have an even greater positive effect on them than on others. Improving workplace conditions will have an outsize positive return for Highly Sensitive people. This means increased benefits from their gifts and minimised weaknesses - along with reduced harm to them.
3. Human Resources / People & Culture personnel will be better placed to understand this group of people in the workplace and respond to their needs.
With that in mind, here's what the Highly Sensitive people I asked shared about unhelpful elements in their workplaces:
Next, I have 3 specific workplace environments, as certain elements are unique to, or often found together in, some sectors.
A start-up company
These conditions illustrate a lack of autonomy or the recognition that employees are people with needs and talents, not unembodied bundles of resources. Needing to expand quickly as a start-up doesn't negate this. (These are also common elements of employee dissatisfaction - not just of concern for Highly Sensitive people. But they might experience even greater stress and other effects than the rest).
Not-for-profit organisations working to solve social problems
HS people care deeply about doing well, doing right, and making things better. They’re not the only ones – but being so responsive, when they’re uncomfortable with aspects like misalignment of actions and purported values in an organisation, it’s an indication that something is wrong, and needs to be addressed. If left, it will only grow into a more ingrained problem that will become harder to deal with.
I.T. Programming at a global company
This is just a sample of the experiences of Highly Sensitive people at work. But it represents some common elements for this group.
If you recognise your workplace in any of these elements, consider what it would mean for this mostly invisible group to have conditions where they can thrive.
For more about the benefits of Highly Sensitive people at work, see 10-benefits-that-highly-sensitive-people-bring-to-the-workplace. For more about the Highly Sensitive temperament, see what-is-high-sensitivity-the-best-places-to-learn-more and high-sensitivity-the-basics-explained. To find out how learning about and creating positive conditions for this group can improve overall wellbeing and effectiveness in your workplace, browse a description of my services, and / or send me a message.
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've made a list of what High Sensitivity IS and ISN'T - since there are various myths or misconceptions around about it. You can get it by clicking the button below. No sign-up required - this is a direct link to the file.
You can use this list for your own reference, and/or to help those in your workplace understand what High Sensitivity actually is - and bust some myths they might believe about it.
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/Responsive 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, combined with 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 review 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. Consider: are they already aware?
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
Apart from giving them feedback, ask Highly Sensitive team members for suggestions regarding the workplace. 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.
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.