You're so sensitive (yeah!)

Nearly 1 in 3 people are wired as high performers. Why are they afraid to show it?

3 ways to harness the power of sensitivity at work—yours and others
Nearly 1 in 3 people are wired as high performers. Why are they afraid to show it?
Illustration: Art Furnace (Shutterstock)
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Have you ever cried at work? Do you overthink criticism? Do you ever look around and wonder how your colleagues keep up with the pace?

If so, you probably try to hide it. But it might be time to do the opposite.

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.

What does it mean to be sensitive?

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.

Of course, everyone is sensitive to a degree. Sensitivity is a continuum, and most people fall in the middle or low end of that continuum. However, about 30% of both men and women score very high for sensitivity. These sensitive individuals sometimes called highly sensitive people or HSPs, experience the world differently. Imagine if you could turn up the volume and brightness of the physical world—and the salience of human emotions. That’s the world sensitive people inhabit, where almost every lie is obvious, and every subtle detail is circled in highlighter.

If that sounds exhausting, it sometimes is—mostly in overstimulating environments, which includes the modern workplace. But it’s also linked to brilliance.

Your sensitivity is your greatest asset

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.

The stigma of being sensitive

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. It’s easy to see why: shooting from the hip may look cool, but—in business, as in gunslinging—it’s better to take the time to aim.

The focus on toughness starts young. In my research on sensitivity, I remember speaking to a school principal whose main concern for sensitive children was how to help them “grow a thicker skin,” which he believed would help them succeed in “the real world.” But sensitivity is an advantage that helped our species survive the real world up to this point. For example, in a computer simulation, creatures programmed to act highly sensitive out-competed their less sensitive rivals and amassed more resources over time.

How to succeed, the sensitive way

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.

Take charge of your environment. The modern workplace favors a hyperactive work style, where email and messages cause constant interruption. This overstimulates and shatters the mental space that sensitive people need to use their gifts. Here’s how you can take control of your environment:

  • Tell your manager you do your best work during periods of uninterrupted focus and propose times when you will be unavailable because you are working that way. (If you’re a manager, encourage this for all employees.)
  • Build routines before or after work that allow you to reset from overstimulation.
  • Add calming elements to your workspaces, such as art, plants, or a lamp with a softer, warmer light.

Take advantage of the sensitive “boost effect.” Just as sensitive people may struggle more in stressful conditions, they also get far turbocharged by supportive conditions—far more so than less-sensitive people. This can be a powerful tool:

  • If you are a sensitive person, take advantage of mentoring or development programs offered by your employer. If there aren’t any, seek out a mentor, mastermind group, or coach outside of work.
  • If you’re a manager, ensure your team knows about the programs and resources available. And if you think one of your reports is an HSP, have a one-on-one conversation to discuss what resources would help them develop themselves to the next level.

Put your sensitivity front and center. The most pivotal step for a sensitive person is to accept and embrace being sensitive, not as something to overcome but as the source of your greatest abilities.

  • Be open about seeing yourself as a sensitive person and what that means. “I’m pretty sensitive to my surroundings, so I try to work near natural light,” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
  • Treat sensitivity like any other typical trait. Being sensitive is no better or worse than being extroverted or introverted, technical or artsy, a numbers person or a visual person.
  • Honor your needs as a sensitive person. This may include pursuing more meaningful work or building fewer commitments into your schedule. The more you nurture your sensitivity, the more your career will thrive—and the happier you will be.

Andre Sólo is co-founder of Sensitive Refuge, chief make-it-happen officer at Introvert, Dear, and co-author of Sensitive (Harmony, Feb 2023) with Jenn Granneman.