05/15/2014 12:53 EDT | Updated 07/21/2014 05:59 EDT

In Business, Sensitivity Is an Asset

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The demand for constant attainability, unabated commitment and quick adaptability pushes an increasing number of employees to the edge of their capacities, causing stress-related symptoms and absenteeism. Predominantly exposed to this kind of stress are highly sensitive leaders and team members. However, highly sensitive persons (often referred to as HSPs) can provide competitive advantages to organizations.

Your colleague who's quietly sitting in the corner isn't necessarily the introvert you may think. The team member who prefers to spend her lunch break alone and go for a walk in the park instead of having lunch at the diner around the corner isn't necessarily shy or depressed. It may very well be that both are highly sensitive and therefore need more time and quietness in order to cope with an amount of information that their colleagues are not even aware of.

High sensitivity -- or more correctly: high sensory-processing sensitivity -- was first scientifically examined and published by U.S. psychologist Elaine N. Aron in her book "The Highly Sensitive Person" in 1997. Ever since, the awareness for the topic and its potential for the workplace in which employees are ever more often a crucial component for competitive advantage is increasing.

So, what is high sensitivity? Human beings are performing at their best when they are sufficiently stimulated yet not overwhelmed. That is when the often quoted state of "flow" kicks in that makes us efficient and effective. However, this threshold is not the same for everyone. Due to a specific neurological trait that causes the nervous system to be more sensitive, highly sensitive persons can filter their perception less than others.

Simplified, we could say that highly sensitive persons perceive and process sensory perceptions such as noise, light, odor and temperature as well as moods in themselves and others more intensely, compared to others. This leads to a faster sensory overload and thus higher demand for time to regenerate. It can be compared to different resolutions in photography, where high sensitivity would correspond to high resolution image capture and processing, which implies more data and a higher demand in time and resources.

High sensitivity is an inherited trait that can be found in 15-20 per cent of the total population, across cultures. It is not the same as shyness or introversion, even though it may look as such at first glance. Actually, around 30 per cent of highly sensitive persons are in fact extroverts who often choose to start their own business where they can independently blossom and live up to their potential.

There are a number of very positive aspects to high sensitivity in the business world that can lead to remarkably higher quality in areas such as teamwork, communication, customer orientation or innovation and thus create the respective competitive advantages mentioned earlier. Among these positive aspects are an often above-average intuition, natural problem-solving competence and creativity, high empathy, distinct diligence and reliability, detailed perception, the ability to deeply reflect and to see the big picture.

Moreover, highly sensitive employees can be important forerunners when it comes to high workloads or change that will eventually affect all other employees too -- similar to winegrowing where often roses are planted at the beginning of a row of vines because they react to environmental influences much earlier.

Unfortunately, sensitivity has a rather negative connotation in western cultures. In a society that favors the loudest and the fastest, sensitivity is often put on a level with poor resilience and weakness, which is flat-out wrong. It is especially in situations of extreme stress and strain that highly sensitive persons remain more calm and cool-headed and show even more resilience than others.

But this poor image of sensitivity is not the same all over the world. A Canadian study came to the conclusion that highly sensitive children in Canada are remarkably more often bullied and teased by their classmates than other kids. In contrast, highly sensitive children are among the most appreciated, popular and admired classmates and are held in high esteem in China and other Asian countries. Obviously, there are remarkable cultural differences when it comes to high sensitivity.

These findings can provide important insight for the workplace. Anything but weak and unable to cope with a heavy workload, both highly sensitive managers and team members possess strengths such as profoundness and foresight that can support organizations in making well-considered decisions rather than hasty ones. In the course of an increased awareness for the benefits of diversity, high sensitivity definitely belongs on the agenda.

Human beings have different needs and need different working conditions in order to bring out their full potential for an organization. As long as key performance indicators measure the employee's performance by their active participation in meetings or decision making speed, 15-20 per cent of the workforce is disadvantaged. Or as Albert Einstein already astutely said:

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

True high performance is only possible if all behavioral styles and tendencies are represented, understood, respected and valued for the unique contribution to the whole. In order to achieve this, we need an overall more humane workplace in which the own (high) sensitivity of leaders and their competent way of leading themselves is a crucial aspect of an organization's competitive advantage.

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