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Janine Ramsay



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Highly Sensitive People in the workplace – from shame to fame


This article was written by Janine Ramsey, founder of Sensitivity Style, a new model supported by scientific research that's designed to help people with differing levels of sensitivity live and work together more respectfully and successfully. Her article is a follow-up to our interview with Elaine Aron, who pioneered the concept of Highly Sensitive People (HSP).

Cutting edge research in the area of personality traits and workplace performance confirms what has long been known by psychologists, personality researchers and perhaps many wise business managers…people with higher sensory perception and processing ability are rated as the best performers by their managers (2011 Bhavania Shrivastava UK).

In a world dominated by automation, computation and systemisation, the need for people with intuition, creativity, empathy and superior sensory perception and processing abilities has never been greater. Unable to be reproduced by technology, the capabilities of such people are rare and valuable and offer the potential for unique points of difference amongst competing organisations. Fully leveraged, such people can make the difference between organisational survival and failure in these turbulent times.

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind speaks of the future belonging to right-brained people, people with what he calls “high concept” and “high touch”, capabilities of intuition, empathy, compassion, creativity, ability to see the big picture; functions based in the right side of the brain.

Research by Dr Elaine Aron PhD (1991), clinical & research psychologist and others has found that about 20% of the population have these capabilities innately, having inherited genes associated with the personality trait of high Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).

Commonly referred to as ‘Highly Sensitive People’ (HSP), the termed being coined by Dr Aron in the early 1990’s, this significant minority in the workplace are those rated as ‘better performers by their managers’ in the latest research findings cited above. In short, they are “ideal employees," according to Elaine Aron in The Highly Sensitive Person, 1991.

The research of Dr Elaine Aron and others shows that HSP have many qualities of great value to the workplace. “They are intuitive visionaries, able to see the big picture, creative, aware of and thoughtful to the needs of others, good influences on the social climate, vigilant with quality, highly conscientious, loyal, able to pick up on subtleties in the environment and in interpersonal communications, and are often gifted. In short, they are ideal employees”, says Dr Elaine Aron in The Highly Sensitive Person, 1991. Basically, every quality that Pink states is required for success in the Conceptual Age into which we have now shifted.

Tragically however, in what is arguably one of the greatest human resource wastages of our time, many organisations are missing out on utilising their highly sensitive persons (HSPs) because they can’t see past our out-dated, cultural bias towards people who present as more sensitive than others. As Pink says, people with these abilities have been, and continue to be, highly undervalued in our society, to the detriment of organisational success.

Western cultures tend to be sensitive-phobic, (unlike Eastern cultures which highly value their sensitive people), and ‘sensitive-ists’ permeate our modern workplaces making life hell on earth for those born highly sensitive and perceptive in today’s western society.

Amongst a population majority that is assertive, bold and quick – considered highly favourable attributes by Western culture – those with a more sensitive, empathetic and deeper processing style are often seen as weak, faulty, too slow and ultimately LESS than the others. Chronically undervalued, they often go unnoticed at best, or are shamed, trampled on, even eliminated (bullied out) because they make easy targets due to their generally non-confrontational nature.

The highly sensitive employee has often endured a lifetime of being taunted, teased and shamed because of their sensitivity. Well meaning parents, teachers, colleagues and bosses think they can ‘fix’ the highly sensitive person, who is clearly deficient, by telling to toughen up, get over it and generally shaming them into thinking there is something wrong with them.

As one might expect, the research indicates that people born with high sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) are significantly more at risk of being bullied than those without the trait. In the workplace, the alleged bullies are often managers with poor interpersonal skills, poor EQ and low self-esteem who may feel threatened by the skills of the quietly spoken, caring, sensitive, perceptive and talented subordinate.

Psychological injury is the fastest growing category of workplace injury in Australia. The injury rate has doubled in the past eight years, and it accounts for 27% of the costs of all workplace injuries ($200M pa)

This trend is seen worldwide as CEOs and HR specialists struggle to bring this issue under control.

Toxic work environments, lack of awareness of the trait of high sensitivity, cultural prejudice towards sensitive people, and the fore-mentioned poor people management skills are among the causes for this spike.

It is well established in business research that there is a significant relationship between employee wellbeing and workplace performance. This relationship is amplified in the 20% of the workforce with higher sensory perception and processing.

From one end of the performance continuum to the other, sensitive, perceptive people have the potential to be the best or worst performers depending on the conditions, due to their enhanced ability to detect and deeply process subtleties in the environment.  Many mistakenly believe that being highly sensitive is only about being highly vulnerable, but this is not correct.

The trait of high sensitivity and perception is more accurately about responsivity and plasticity to the environment than solely about vulnerability to poor environments (Biological Sensitivity to Context, Ellis et al 2008), (Vulnerability of Plasticity Genes?, Belsky & Pluess 2009). This means that although the sensitive employees may be the first to fall when the workplace is unhealthy, they will also be the first to flourish when the environment is healthy. Organisations that create healthy environments and implement positive interventions for employees will see the greatest return on investment from their highly sensitive and perceptive employees.

All employees are affected eventually, but those with higher sensory perception and processing abilities are affected sooner. This is significant because it means that the health and wellbeing of your sensitive people is a good indicator of the status of the working environment, thus providing valuable information for leaders who can then take action to improve conditions before all employees are impacted.

This is similar to the way the rosebush provides protection for the vineyard.

In wine regions around the world, roses are frequently planted at the perimeter of vineyards. Roses typically require the same type of soil and sun requirements as grapevines and traditionally, rose hedges were planted as an early warning system to protect the health of the grapevines. Early detection of disease or stress on the roses alerted winemakers to take the necessary precautions to protect vines from damage. Roses also add beauty to the vineyard landscape, provide food for bees and offer habitat for beneficial insects preying on undesirable insects that can damage the grape crop.

If you want to know what needs to be done to create a healthy workplace environment that will bring out the best in all your people, ask your highly sensitive people! They will tell you things you may never have thought of, including details about the aesthetics of the environment, provision of quiet spaces and reflection time and ways to create a more a more caring and supportive workplace culture.

Those with out-dated thinking might still say that people with the trait are a liability for an organisation. But smart organisations of the Conceptual Age see people with this innate ability as a rare and valuable asset. They foster and utilise their highly sensitive, perceptive employees’ unique abilities to achieve success at an individual, organisational, community and global level.

They have shifted their cultural bias, implemented a zero tolerance for discrimination towards sensitive people, included high sensory processing sensitivity as an important dimension of their diversity management strategy, educated their organisation about differing levels of sensitivity style, upskilled their managers to know how to bring out the best in their sensitives (using managerial skills which ultimately bring out the best in everyone) – and they have subsequently promoted their Highly Sensitive People from SHAME… to FAME!

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Janine Ramsay


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