• Behaviour

Valuing High Sensitivity at Work

Vlerick’s Karlien Vanderheyden highlights the benefits and challenges presented by individuals with sensory processing sensitivity


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It is generally easier on get on in an organization if you have a robust personality and fit in well with the culture. As a rule, organizations actively select and promote people as managers who have these characteristics and appear to be confident and at ease.

From a recruitment perspective, this approach may be understandable, but it has implications for increasing diversity of thought in organizations—something that has proven to be important in promoting innovation, countering ‘groupthink’, and putting organizations in closer contact with their customers.

Being open to neuro-diversity and supportive of people with different ways of dealing with the world is not only morally right but can be good for the bottom line—in the AI era people who process information from different perspectives have special worth.

One relatively common difference—20-30% of individuals display this characteristic—is sensory processing sensitivity, or high sensitivity. Common, but rarely discussed or allowed for.

Highly sensitive people have a lot to offer in terms of the intuitive, empathetic and softer skills that organizations undoubtedly need. Yet they face numerous challenges at work, due to they’re being more deeply attuned to all kinds of stimuli (such as ambient noise, comments by other people, emotions of colleagues, non-verbal signals, smells, movements, etc.) than the majority.

In a recent article for Management Team, Vlerick Business School’s Karlien Vanderheyden, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, considered the value added to organizations by highly sensitive people and some of the challenges they face. This is an extract from her article:

What are the strengths of highly sensitive people?

  • As highly sensitive people process information deeply, they are more inclined towards complex thought, deep reflection, and making links between themes.
  • They are often less judgmental and are open to different perspectives.
  • They show excellent attention to detail, are creative, and are very good listeners.
  • They recognize injustices more easily and feel the need to fight them.

How can you recognize highly sensitive people in your organization?

  • Do you notice a depth of processing in the questions they ask or the observations they make? For example, do they come up with ideas that have not yet been considered?
  • Do you observe that they easily become over-stimulated in comparison to others, such as in larger groups?
  • Do you notice strong emotional reactions? For example, do they show exceptional empathy for others?
  • Do you observe that they notice subtleties which are not picked up by others, e.g. a change in how their office is organized or how a colleague is feeling?

How as a manager can you make optimal use of their strengths?

  • First and foremost, you have to adjust the belief that sensitivity is a shortcoming. A deeper perception of the world is a gift—one that can be harnessed to stimulate creativity, innovation and professional growth.
  • Go proactively to the highly sensitive employee and ask how they are. It also helps to have a supportive team.
  • As regards feedback, a highly sensitive person is often their own worst critic, so pay close attention to your tone and expression. Highly sensitive people get energy from a positive approach, so spend more time exploring alternative behaviour instead of pointing out shortcomings.
  • Every employee wants to feel that their work is making a useful contribution, but this urge is particularly pronounced in highly sensitive people. They tend to be diligent and find it important to have an impact.
  • Highly sensitive people may need to organize their time a little differently so as not to become overwhelmed. Do not be tempted to micromanage! Trust that they know how to organize their work to get things done.  

What does it mean if you are highly sensitive as a manager?

  • Although you can sometimes become easily overwhelmed, and you sometimes want to withdraw for a while, noticing subtleties in the environment is an immensely valuable leadership skill.
  • Your empathy means that you know how others feel and how you can best help them. Team members also sense that they can speak freely and that you give them the opportunity to shine themselves.
  • As a highly sensitive person, you are reflective. You are able to look back at the situation in order to see what worked, and what did not. You dare to make your faults open to discussion so that everyone can learn from them.
  • You are able to find creative solutions for problems and to look at a situation from different points of view.
  • Your staff are not afraid to ask you questions, because they know that you will not judge them for their problems, uncertainties or faults.


Read the full article ‘Does Sensitivity Add Value to Our Organizations’ on the Vlerick Business School site.

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