Sensitivity and vulnerability in the workplace can take your organization to the next level, if you know how to create an environment for all employees to flourish.
I recently came out of the closet… as a highly sensitive person. Up until then, I spent most of my life trying to fix my sensitivity—or at the very least hide it from others. I felt so much shame about it, in part, I believe because of our society. We glorify and deem those who don’t show their emotions to be strong. We praise people for “pushing through” and “sucking it up.” We love the movie characters, even the villains, who can commit acts of crime without flinching. We want to feel invincible, that nothing in this cruel world can hurt us.
But if you really think about it, it takes a lot more strength and courage to not lose your heart in this world, to remain open to humanity, despite the things we see and experience. To choose not to numb out human emotions with alcohol, drugs, sex, work… hell, even shopping and the internet. To stay awake and aware is painful. It takes true strength to show up authentically, stay the course, and try your best—knowing you could give it all and still fail.
It wasn’t until grad school that I had a professor point out to me that my vulnerability, and thus sensitivity, is actually what she or he believed makes me a better leader than the average. I had never thought of it that way. I’d always seen my sensitivity or “soft heart” as a liability, something I would need to overcome if I wanted to be successful in the business world. But what they explained to me was, that same heart that I was hiding, is the very light that guides people out of the darkness and into their best selves. My ability to feel deeply and empathize with others, is what ultimately can change the world for the better. Most other people have given up their sensitivity because somewhere along the way things got too painful. They learned how to stuff down the pain, push it away, or put it in a box to be dealt with later. And they have been rewarded for it by our culture. But ultimately that behavior is what can lead it to the state of the world we are in. Strength is seeing and feeling the world as is, and choosing to love and live authentically anyway.
Psychologist and author of “The Highly Sensitive Person” Elaine Aron estimates that 1 in 5 people can be identified as Highly Sensitive. That means there is a high likelihood you may have a few in your organization. When some people hear the term “Highly Sensitive Person,” they may have all sorts of reactions. It’s easy to dismiss these people and assume they are weak. There are people who might even be afraid of a HSP, unsure if they may do or say something that upsets them, so they avoid them instead. But in doing so, they’re missing out on a phenomenal asset to the organization.
The trick is to take the time to learn and understand them. Help place them in situations where they can shine and bring their unique gifts to the company. You’d be unlikely to put your top sales employee in operations, just as putting a HSP in an area where they can’t thrive would be limiting.
Here are some ways I have found have helped myself and my sensitive clients flourish:
Acknowledge that sensitivity as an asset- not a liability. This starts with you.
YOU have to believe it is a strength and not a weakness first, or you will never be able to truly convey this to your employees. It starts with you. YOU are the instrument for change. That doesn’t mean you need to go rent The Notebook and cry on the couch for days; it means you start looking to see where sensitivity in a situation resulted in a positive effect. If you really don’t believe being sensitive is a good thing (well, for one thing, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article) be gentle with yourself and know it may take time. You don’t have to believe it overnight. Just slowly start collecting data that may add up to a shift in perspective, that’s all.
Adopt an Appreciative Mindset.
When we’re filled with deadlines, stress, to-do lists, bills to pay, people to please, etc. we can forget to be grateful. Adding gratitude into your life helps connect you to others and to the universe. If someone lets you in their lane, just give a mental thank you in your mind. Acknowledge the good. When you really master this skill, you’ll be able to give genuine thanks to people and situations you may have thought we once negative. You’ll notice your life has turned into an abundance of positive, prosperous, meaningful situations. Your light will start to shine for your family, friends, coworkers and employees. When I first went through this shift, it not only impacted my life, but the lives of those around me. Suddenly I was no longer involved in the drama and negativity—and others started to seek what I had and follow my lead.
Help give highly sensitive employees (and all employees for that matter) the conditions they need to thrive.
They may not know what those are yet. If they’re anything like I was, they may still be in denial of their sensitivity, and have no idea what they need. What I found that works for me personally in the work place is to move around—some days if the energy is heavy in a certain part of the office, I need to go somewhere else or I will soak it up and become depleted. I can’t do my best work when that happens.
Allow some grace in terms of social situations—I already work 8 hours a day with my coworkers, and I care about them dearly, but sometimes going to get drinks or dinner with them after work is just too much. I need to recharge my battery.
Increase authentic communication
Check-in with them from time to time, just to talk and see how they are doing. Highly sensitive people can thrive on connection with others. It doesn’t have to be work related. It might just be a 15 minute conversation about what’s new in their life, or get to know their interests. When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to invest themselves in their work. If you think about it, it just makes sense. People want to be seen.
Help cultivate their skill set.
Take the time to help them discover their strengths. It may not always be obvious. I was so busy trying to force my strengths to be what I saw as powerful: a loud voice, strong opinions, controlling, dominating… those were things I thought were desirable. Now those words make me cringe. Because there were people professionally and personally who took the time to help me figure out what I was good at, I now know my “power” comes from my quiet confidence, and my ability to lead by asking the right questions instead of demanding orders.
I am able to inspire honest, and trust in people, very quickly, because I exude that in my entire being. I am someone people feel comfortable telling their darkest secrets to… and in their ability to share their darkness with me, I help them find their way to the light.
The more HSP employees recognize their strengths and are in an environment that expresses appreciation and desire for their skill set, the more confident they will become in using their abilities for the growth of the organization. You may not know the gem you have in your office, sitting behind a desk, currently in a position that they do well enough—is waiting for their intuitive empathy to be uncovered and seen. You never know just what impact acknowledging their unique talent could unfold for them and for your organization.
Photo credit: Flickr/Robert Snache