Does sensitivity add value to our organisations?

Karlien Vanderheyden

By Karlien Vanderheyden

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

29 September 2022

Highly sensitive employees and leaders have skills that are useful in any organisation. All we need to do is change the belief that high sensitivity is a problem or a defect.


Source: Management Team (21/09/2022)

There is considerable diversity within organisations. As well as obvious differences such as skin colour or age, people also differ in terms of their communication style, the way they approach tasks, how extravert they are, and so on. One difference that has been little discussed up to now is sensory processing sensitivity, or high sensitivity. Research shows that around 20-30% of individuals display this characteristic. Highly sensitive people are more attuned to all kinds of stimuli (such as ambient noise, comments by other people, emotions of colleagues, non-verbal signals, smells, movements) and also process these in a deeper way. In our modern world, in which data, reason and masculinity have accelerated sharply in recent decades, the softer, more intuitive and sensitive aspects of individuals are often devalued.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of highly sensitive people?

In general, highly sensitive people are well adjusted to positive environments. However, when the environment is threatening or has the tendency to become negative, highly sensitive people are at greater risk of being less satisfied with work and experiencing higher levels of stress. Additionally, they often take things more personally or overthink many things.

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 judgemental and are open to different perspectives.
  • They show excellent attention to detail, are creative, and are very good listeners.
  • They recognise injustices more easily and feel the need to fight them.

How can you recognise highly sensitive people in your organisation?

  • 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 organised or how a colleague is feeling?

Highly sensitive people have a considerable number of skills that are useful in a more digital world, including creativity, empathy, and the ability to view information from different perspectives. These are skills that technology is not sufficiently equipped to take over.

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 organise their time a little differently so as not to become overwhelmed. Do not be tempted to micromanage! Trust that they know how to organise 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.

Get in touch!

Karlien Vanderheyden

Karlien Vanderheyden

Associate Professor