Work Isn't Working

Leadership Downplaying Potentials They Can’t Perceive

How to embrace sensitivity to help the individual and company
3 ways to harness the power of sensitivity at work—yours and others

That’s because those behaviors are common signs of a sensitive person—someone whose mind is wired to go deep. And sensitive people tend to be high performers in the workplace, often bringing unique gifts that create value and drive innovation. 

There’s just one problem: many sensitive people try to downplay and even deny their sensitivity—especially in their careers.

As someone who has similar traits such as these, I completely disagree that we downplay our sensitivity. Actually we are the ones being downplayed by others, especially management. I’ll explain further below.

As a personality trait, being sensitive means you process more information about your environment and respond to it more strongly. That gives you a keener eye for detail and an innate ability to read the emotions of others. It also means you may think longer or feel stronger emotions than someone else in the same situation.

That explains the occasional workday crying session—and the struggle with fast-paced deadlines. However, it also means the sensitive mind is akin to a next-generation supercomputer. All that extra processing power turns up more creative solutions, insights, and a startling ability to connect dots that others miss.

Two ways I’ve described this in the past is that your sensitivity makes you too empathetic to the point of it being debilitating. If someone is fired unjustly or if someone is targeted by a toxic boss, you feel like you are that person, experiencing their emotions as if they were your own. It also makes you feel like a canary in a coal mine, which usually doesn’t end well for the canary.

A simpler way to understand people like this is to realize that our pattern recognition capabilities are supercharged, so we can detect patterns usually way before other people (i.e. in days or weeks instead of months or years).

In a survey conducted by graduate student Bhavini Shrivastava, the IT workers who tested highest for sensitivity were indeed the most stressed out at work—but they were also those whose performance was rated highest by their managers. This is no surprise to experts on giftedness, who have connected sensitivity to high ability for nearly sixty years; one recent study suggests that up to 87% of gifted individuals score as highly sensitive.

In practical terms, sensitive people come with five main gifts: they are wired for deep thinking, understand emotions, score high for empathy, are natural creatives, and have a high sensory intelligence—a trait that includes situational awareness, which wins soccer games and keeps patients alive in the ER. 

Many of these gifts are in high demand in our economy; they are the building blocks of innovation and leadership. So, by rights, sensitive people ought to put their sensitivity at the top of their resumé. But that is not the message we get about being sensitive.

And yes, if you’re able to detect and recognize patterns before others, that amplifies your abilities and increases your situational awareness (which I’m impressed that this article sees the relationship between the two).

When I was a Systems Support Officer for the Federal Government, I would often have people from other departments coming to get my help instead of getting help from their own Support Officer. The reason being is that 1) I often was able to detect the cause of issues before other people, almost on an intuitive level, and 2) I actually talked to people like they were human beings, using metaphors to help explain what was going wrong, rather than talking to them using computer terminology that made them feel like they were technological idiots.

When I was initially hired as a Junior Web Developer for another web firm later in my life, I quickly became one of two Senior Web Developers, with one of the firm’s owners telling me that I was the “gem” of their hirings. This happened though because the owners specifically asked for our input, thus being very open to feedback from us. The more I opened up and provided my deeper perspective of things I was seeing and aware of, the more they were amazed by me.

Despite its many gifts, “sensitive” has become a dirty word. It’s used to mean easily offended, overreacting, and weak. Men run away from the term altogether, and women are slandered for being too sensitive—a phrase that should be retired. This stigma is why many sensitive people hide who they are. 

One reason for this stigma is our culture’s obsession with toughness. We idolize people who are loud, assertive, and quick to take risks—never mind that these are traits of a toxic leader. But a sensitive person’s slower, more thoughtful approach pays off. In studies of both humans and primates, the genes associated with sensitivity also lead to measurably better decision-making.

So how do we tap that advantage in our companies and careers today? First, we must embrace sensitivity by encouraging and rewarding it at an organizational level and by owning it as sensitive people.

This is pretty much why I disagreed with the earlier statement that sensitive people downplay their abilities but rather their abilities are often downplayed by others instead, particularly management. And I’m not even talking about a “toxic leader” downplaying their abilities, it can happen with a non-toxic leader as well. I mean just think about it and imagine how things play out in a typical scenario.

A highly sensitive person detects a pattern within the organization that most other people are blind to seeing, so it’s invisible to others. This could be a cultural pattern of behaviours, beliefs, or values that are negatively affecting the organization and affecting the well-being of its people in turn. If a highly sensitive person relays what they’re perceiving to management, take a guess how management or leadership is going to react to someone critiquing their company? Probably the same as how a leader typically reacts to someone telling them about a new paradigm in their business.

So it’s not courage that sensitive people need to step forward with their amplified abilities. It’s management that needs the courage to accept the critique and feedback from their employees about their business. Most conventional management and leadership teams do not have this capacity though, although you might see it in Fortune 500 companies, if you’re lucky.

Again, as I’ve iterated in the past, if your a leader within a company and you’re looking for people to take leadership positions in your company, you don’t need to look outside of it to find them. There are leaders all around you. You just need the perception to be able to see them.

That’s the problem with our world today though. Most people, particularly leaders, are using outdated mindsets, paradigms, and worldviews to navigate and make decisions in their daily work lives, which is why they are blind to what’s right in front of them. Until they can broaden their perception and internal worldview, their external sight will continue to be limited, thus limiting their organizations in turn.

Leave a Reply