“People would always say to me, ‘You’re being so sensitive,’ as if it was a bad thing,” says Lisa*, a creative director. “It came up in my reviews at work. But then I started to think, ‘Why the f*** is being sensitive a bad thing?’”
The idea of the “sensitive person” was popularised by psychologist Elaine N Aron’s 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person. A bestseller that sold over a million copies, it paints a picture of someone who is hyper responsive to not only environmental stimuli like noises and lights, but also to emotional ones. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are highly empathetic, Aron wrote: “They process everything around them much more. [They] reflect on it, elaborate on it, make associations.”
Throughout history, we’ve had a certain idea of what a leader in the workplace looks like: authoritative, self-confident and emotionally detached. But who is to say a person with these traits makes the “right” type of boss? In a workplace built by men who might tend to have more alpha traits, it is only recently, as more and more women continue to make their way into upper management, that the floor has opened for different personality types to lead.
So, can sensitive people thrive as bosses? All personality types have attributes that can both enhance and detract from someone’s ability to be an effective boss – and the same is true for sensitive people. Lisa, who has worked in advertising for more than a decade, is happy in herself as a sensitive person, but acknowledges it can, if unchecked, lead to issues in her management skills. “I sometimes have to stop myself being too empathetic and patient as sometimes the person you manage needs tough love,” she admits. “I really have to set boundaries for myself as a boss and check out of the situation as I can get very consumed.”
Alex*, a manager who also defines herself as a sensitive person, agrees with this sentiment. “I think because I’m so sensitive,” she explains, “I naturally foresee all the potential problems that could arise with a particular task I assign to someone.” Alex says she makes a point of reminding herself to step back and let her employee navigate the issues themselves. “As someone with much more experience than my employees, there’s this feeling of almost wanting to ‘protect’ them from things that come up, but that robs them of the chance to learn.”
A large part of managing anyone is being able to provide constructive feedback, and this was something both Lisa and Alex say they initially struggled with. “It took me a little while to care less about hurting someone’s feelings when I had to give feedback or when something wasn’t working,” Lisa admits. She says she couldn’t bear the idea of her employee not liking her and would spend hours worrying that she’d upset them. “Slowly, I realised that this is work, not my friendship circle, and to get the job done well I have to remove some level of emotion.”
Hannah Salton spent the first part of her career working in HR and recruitment for global corporations. Now a coach who specialises in confidence and career change, and as someone who admits she too can be sensitive, Hannah remembers these challenges from her time as a manager. “I think self-awareness plays a big part.” She says. “Sensitive managers should be aware of their strengths and their weaknesses so they can be more conscious of how they treat their employees.” Understanding different people’s preferences, she continues, is key to being a good leader.
When it comes to delivering feedback, Hannah says the key is practice and preparation. “Getting clear on the message you want to say beforehand can help, as can being specific and giving examples.” There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive to your employee’s feelings, she says, but, “being vague and dancing around the subject isn’t helping anybody”.
“Most work problems can be overcome with clear, authentic and honest conversation,” adds Hannah.
There are many characteristics sensitive people possess that actually add to their management abilities. In The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron writes about the common misunderstanding that having heightened emotions can cause a person to think “illogically”. Emotion, she says, is central to wisdom. “One reason is that most emotion is felt after an event, which apparently serves to help us remember what happened and learn from it. The more upset we are by a mistake, the more we think about it and will be able to avoid it the next time. The more delighted we are by a success, the more we think and talk about it and how we did it, causing us to be more likely to be able to repeat it,” says Aron.
Lisa believes that in the long run, being sensitive has benefited her as a leader. “I think being a sensitive boss can be such a plus. Sensitivity makes you really tune into your team – you’re able to gauge the vibe of the room and the team dynamics so quickly and focus in on what energy changes need to be made to get the most out of the team.” It also helps her realise who needs more emotional attention and who works better from a tougher management style.
Hannah agrees, “Generally sensitive people care about others and get the best from their team members. They will want to resolve challenges and be empathetic when their team members are going through a hard time.”
And with huge amounts of uncertainty prevalent in every strand of life right now, sensitivity is more important than ever. No one is functioning at full capacity, and having the ability to recognise that in your employees and respond in the appropriate way as a manager is going to be far more effective than other approaches.
So if you are sensitive, lean into it. There’s no reason you can’t be an excellent boss and it’s certainly not a trait to try and hide. As Aron wrote on her fellow HSPs, “You were born to be among the advisors and thinkers, the spiritual and moral leaders for your society. There is every reason for pride.”
*Names have been changed
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