Juliet was the type of employee every manager dreamed of. Hardworking and dedicated, she strived to excel in her role as lead project manager. Her knack for communication meant tasks were accomplished on time. Her conscientiousness nature assured that every detail was accounted for.
However, at times, Juliet struggled to cope with the stresses of her job. Last-minute changes sent her into a tailspin of overwhelming emotions that compromised her productivity and focus. Juliet also avoided giving necessary feedback to other colleagues, which often interfered with the team’s progress, because she feared push back.
Juliet is a highly sensitive person, or HSP. High sensitivity, also referred to as sensory processing sensitivity, is a genetic trait that affects approximately 20% of the population. Psychologist Elaine Aron, who coined the term in the 1990s, theorized that the trait evolved to help people with more sensitive nervous systems cope better with the world.
As an executive coach and HSP myself, people often ask me how to manage highly sensitive people in the workplace. It first and foremost requires correcting the belief that sensitivity is a defect. Perceiving the world more deeply is a gift—one that can be leveraged to spark creativity, innovation, and professional growth. In fact, sensitive people are consistently rated as top performers in their organizations. HSPs tend to be well-liked by managers and appreciated for their thoughtfulness, even if they get overwhelmed from time to time. Nevertheless, being highly sensitive can present challenges for managing stress, pressure, and relationships in the workplace.
As a manager, it’s your job to help every member of your team thrive. Here’s how you can identify highly sensitive employees, and how you can help them embrace their full potential.
Traits of highly sensitive people in the workplace
Research shows that HSPs exhibit greater blood flow in brain areas related to emotional processing, awareness, and empathy. These cognitive abilities make HSPs responsive to other people’s needs, sometimes at the expense of their personal well-being. Among my clients, I notice that HSPs tend to struggle with perfectionism and people-pleasing more than others.
Generally speaking, HSPs are more affected by external stimuli than non-HSPs. As a result, they may become easily overwhelmed, particularly when under pressure. Deadlines may frazzle them and getting caught off guard in meetings is a common fear. Certain environments, like open floor-plan offices, can also send a HSP running for refuge.
Because they are so perceptive, HSPs love to dive deep into topics. They often enjoy strategy and planning. However, they may become easily frustrated by co-workers who lack a similar appreciation for nuance.
Tips for managing a highly sensitive employee
Effectively managing the HSPs on your team comes down to empowering them to embrace their strengths while equipping them with tools to manage their emotionality.
Start a conversation about stress
HSPs tend internalize feelings more deeply, including stress. They may be less likely to speak up when they are struggling because they fear being perceived as weak or incapable. Proactively check in and ask your HSP employee how they’re doing. Expressing genuine concern about your employee’s well-being not only helps them feel valued and understood, but also opens up lines of communication and potential problem-solving.
Coach them to cope with stimulating situations
HSPs are easily overstimulated, so it’s important to find routines and habits that help them excel. That can be finding a quiet place to concentrate out of the observing eyes of others (HSPs hate being watched) or anticipating objections in meetings. In Juliet’s case, her manager worked with her to rehearse difficult conversations before they happened. The advance preparation helped her fear conflict less, which enabled projects to keep moving forward.
Tactfully deliver criticism
HSPs tend to react more strongly to criticism than non-HSPs and overcorrect in response to feedback, sometimes sacrificing their well-being in order to please others. Take the sting out of feedback by meeting with HSP employees regularly. When delivering feedback to an HSP, present your thoughts calmly and with an even-keeled tone. Don’t force your HSP employee to respond on the spot; give them time to absorb what they’ve heard and to mull over a response. Of course, these are good tips for delivering feedback to anyone, but HSPs especially.
Connect their work to something meaningful
Every employee wants to feel like their work matters, but this drive is especially high for HSPs. They tend to be committed and care deeply about making an impact. Look for opportunities to help HSP employees apply their strong skills in empathy, communication, and organization more effectively. If deep motivation is missing, an HSP may become apathetic. As a manager, help your HSP employees understand how their efforts connect to a greater purpose. Professional development conversations can include questions like:
- What do you enjoy most about your job?
- In what ways are you proud of the work you do?
- How would you like to make a bigger impact going forward?
- Why is this important to you?
Managing and leading highly sensitive people can involve a steep learning curve, but with awareness and understanding, you can help your employees leverage their unique traits to succeed.
Melody Wilding is a high performance coach and professor of human behavior at Hunter College.