Empowering ‘Highly Sensitive’ Employees

Did you know that your genes may impact your level of “emotional sensitivity?” Research indicates that 20 percent of the world’s population may be “highly sensitive.” These individuals are aware of subtle stimuli that is lost on others – a trait that can be very valuable to a team. For example, sensitive people are the first to notice when someone is uncomfortable and go out of their way to put them at ease. They tend to give people their undivided attention and are good listeners. They embrace peace and harmony and are often the ones to boost a team’s morale.

But because “highly sensitive” (HS) people process information differently than others, small discomforts and embarrassments can cause them severe distress, dissatisfaction and even depression.

My brother is a successful businessman, but he has yet to master the art of counseling poor performing employees. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he confided in me one day. “I told an employee who had missed several deadlines despite repeated reminders that this could not happen again, and she just burst into tears.” While this is a difficult task in any situation, it becomes even more difficult when dealing with highly sensitive individuals.

So how can you as a supervisor bring out the best in your HS employees so that they can be a valuable asset to you and their team? How can you make the work environment less stressful so that they can feel empowered to do their best?

  1. Establish Good Communication Techniques:
    1. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Tone and word choice have a far greater impact than the substance of what is said. Focus on the issue rather than the individual.
    2. Body language. Fifty-five percent of communication is body language. Simple gestures like crossing your arms, being distracted or not making eye contact can limit effective communication.
  2. Give Positive Feedback. Sensitive people tend to need more positive feedback than their thick-skinned counterparts. Just knowing they are appreciated boosts their level of happiness and productivity.
  3. Remove your blinders. Don’t expect everyone to react the same way you do to a given situation. Look at their reaction and body language and adjust your message appropriately.
  4. Notice and acknowledge their strengths, even in giving criticism. If the employee knows they are appreciated for their strengths, they will be more open to discussing their shortcomings.
  5. Get to know your employees and co-workers. Greater knowledge leads to better communication. Learn a bit about their hopes and aspirations and what makes them tick.
  6. Celebrate the little things. Don’t wait for an earth-shattering victory to start the celebration.
  7. Tell them you care about their happiness and ask what you can do to make their work experience more pleasurable. I’ve heard countless employees say “my boss cares about nothing but the bottom line.”
  8. If you need to criticize, focus on the issue and ask the individual how you can work together to address it.
  9. Let them know that you are their ally and advocate, not the enemy. Encourage them to tell you if you’ve hurt their feelings. Invite them to lunch or coffee and ask them to freely express any concerns, and if they do so, listen and take action.
  10. Demonstrate trust. Challenge your employees to do their best. Clearly convey expectations and provide the tools and training necessary. When employees know you trust them to perform to the best of their ability, they will surprise you.

Kamana Mathur is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and the world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Mark Hensch

These are valuable insights! I particularly enjoyed the one about celebrating the little things. It’s a useful piece of wisdom for one’s professional and personal lives.

John Burton

I love the suggestions! All of them are really useful. I particularly like number 7 because it’s something I’ve never thought to do. I actually have to give a performance review next week and I’ll incorporate that idea.

Kimberly Nuckles

Thank you for writing this! I am a highly sensitive person and have learned from experience that I absolutely need these things from my boss/workplace.