The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
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“Sensitive” Is the New “Geek”


When I was in grade school, I felt sorry for all those “geeky” kids who spent more time reading in the library than joining in the kickball game on the playground. Kids teased and taunted them for being different. While I liked both the library and the playground, I was a little too sociable to be labeled a geek.

But I empathized with the geeks! Why? Because I endured my form of shame. While kids poked fun at the geeks for their love of math and their ability to recite formulas, they chastised me for being “so sensitive.”

For me, feeling my feelings was as natural as breathing. But students, teachers, and even my family thought my emotionally-driven awareness of the world was too much. They teased me for crying when the teacher read Charlotte’s Web. They laughed at me when I got all angry huffy-puffy when I had trouble crossing the monkey bars on the playground without falling. They made snide remarks when I befriended the new girl with her thick glasses and back brace.  Ouch! That hurt.

Flash forward to the professional world. Being labeled “sensitive” at work was even worse than at school. “Get a thicker skin” was the equivalent of telling a geek, “Get your head out of the books and go socialize!”

In the business world, as though we’re subtly telling professionals, “Please only bring your logical self to work. 

Leave your emotional self at home. Be a robot.” No one wants emotions to get messy and out of hand. Who wants constantly sobbing workers or angry outbursts that deflect attention from the business at hand?

But those restrictions on emotions are changing. Remember those studious kids who preferred to spend more time in the library than on the playground? Well, those so-called “geeks” are the engineers who are designing the apps that power our world. They’re necessary. Valuable. Even glorified.

In the same way, thankfully, it’s becoming valuable to be emotionally sensitive (within reason, of course), where that trait has been seen as wimpy and weak.

For example, The Annenberg School of Communication spent three years interviewing CEOs in the US and internationally about the traits they see as vital for the future of the workplace. In their report of findings, they identified what they call the “Third Space” of traits that are necessary for success in our technologically enabled world:  adaptability, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, intellectual curiosity, empathy. All sensitive traits. And empathy ranks first. 

We need that blend of sensitive traits now. It used to be that marketing was a one-way conversation, from company to a mass of consumers. Now, conversations are more tailored, so companies need their employees to cultivate empathy to understand individuals. They need empathy to understand how to operate globally, in different cultures. And they need sensitivity within the company, to foster communication and strong relationships in and between teams.

Additionally, as we move to the robot-enabled future that Fortune Magazine columnist and editor Geoff Colvin describes in his new book, “Humans Are Underrated,” he acknowledges that robots can eventually replace people in many roles, like truck drivers. But we cannot replace the roles that involve uniquely human traits, most notably, empathy. 

It’s time for a change. It’s time to acknowledge that we’re not robots. We have feelings. We are emotionally sensitive. And when we access our sensitivity to other people’s feelings, it’s a good thing, indeed.

It’s time to see emotional sensitivity as a strength. Because in an increasingly uncertain world, we need our emotions as guideposts and directional signals. Anger, for example, can signal a violation that needs to be resolved. Sadness can inform us of a loss. Fear can alert us to dangers and threats. When we’re in touch with those emotions, we can be more adaptable, faster, rather than getting caught in personality conflicts.

The good news? I see more and more positive talk about emotions. And now, I’m even seeing positive talk about sensitivity, in a way that helps us understand the strength in this characteristic.

Let’s Talk About Sensitivity:  The Untold Story

On September 10, I attended the world premiere of the documentary Sensitive: The Untold Story in San Francisco. The release of this movie is one of the hallmarks that tells me that our world is starting to embrace emotions more. And as a sensitive person, I’m thrilled.
This documentary, which features music by Alanis Morissette and interviews with her (among many others) grew out of a book written 25 years ago by Elaine Aron, PhDThe Highly Sensitive Person. I remember vividly the moment I found that that book in my local library and grabbed it off the shelf. I devoured in a day or two, crying happy tears as I read each word. I finally felt like I was normal, instead of flawed, for my depth of feeling.

Here’s what I discovered about sensitivity:
Sensitivity is not only a human trait. High sensitivity has been identified in over 100 animal species, including birds, and rhesus monkeys. High sensitivity is a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. In the human population, about 20% of us are highly sensitive, in equal numbers of men and women.  Roughly 70% are introverts, and 30% extroverts (I’m the latter).

How do you know if you are sensitive?

The acronym DOES defines the key elements of the highly sensitive person (HSP) trait. Different people will exhibit these elements in different amounts, so if you’re an HSP, you demonstrate a constellation of elements, rather than a single element. 

D:  Depth of processing

HSPs process information and stimuli deeply. So we generally take longer than the average person to process and experience. If an HSP walks into a new environment, she may take a while to acclimate.

Many HSPs, when encountering new places and people, may initially back away. And then they can be incorrectly labeled as being “shy.” Dr. Aron prefers to call that characteristic “slow to warm up,” because essentially what’s happening is that the individual is taking more time than average to process stimuli more deeply.

This depth of processing makes us HSPs highly intellectually curious, and most of us are extremely creative in one or more aspects of our lives. Because we process deeply, we are also able to see patterns that others overlook.

O:  Overstimulation

Because of the depth of processing in most HSPs, we have a lower threshold when we encounter stimuli. I may get overaroused (and need to pause or stop) when I hear loud noises, see bright lights, or interact with very angry or upset people. My nervous system is “differentially sensitive” to the same sounds, sights, and emotions that may not cause a strong reaction the 80% of people who lack the HSP trait.

In order to deal with a high level of stimulation that we feel, it’s very important for HSP’s to have strong self-care practices, and to plan downtime into our schedules.

E:  Empathy and Emotional Responsiveness

HSPs process the world in a more emotional way than others. We feel deeply. We care deeply. But this emotional awareness does does not make we HSPs, nor anyone else, irrational.

A hallmark of HSPs is that we tend to cry more easily than others do, due to our depth of processing. However, not all HSP’s cry easily. And not all people cry easily are HSPs.

Our ability to have empathy and to read emotions help us to build strong relationships, and makes us HSPs inspiring leaders and excellent advocates for our clients.

S: Sensitivity to Subtleties 

It’s been shown that the brains of highly sensitive people are more activated for subtle cues. We may notice for example, a small error in a report that no one else catches. Or we may notice a micro expression on a customer’s face that nudges ask and find out how they’re doing, preserving a bond.

HSPs tend to have more activity than the average person in the insula, a part of the brain which is known as the seat of consciousness. Perhaps this, in part, explains why most HSPs are highly caring and look to create greater meaning in our lives.

The challenges of being an HSP at work

It’s not necessarily easy to be sensitive in business. Because sensitivity has been misperceived as a weakness, if you are a sensitive person, you need to be mindful of how your inborn trait is treated by others in your organization.

If you get negative reinforcement for your sensitivity — such as comments like “get a thicker skin” — you’re more likely to become depressed. Why? Because you’re going against your natural tendency.  However, if you get support for your sensitivity — such as a manager earnestly asking you “What do you sense our clients are feeling, and what should we do about that? — you and your organization are more likely to benefit.

If you manage a sensitive professional, how can you support their contribution?

Too much criticism and can be very difficult for the sensitive professional. One of the most important success factors for sensitive professionals is the amount of praise they receive. They thrive when they are explicitly and specifically told they are doing a good job. So be generous with the compliments, and zero in on the visible shifts you are seeing. Rather than “Good job!” be more descriptive, saying something like, “The report you created is really helping management understand what needs to be changed. Your use of color coding is really creative and makes the data easy and quick to grasp. Good job!”

You can also help sensitive professionals by supporting their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Ask them if they need breaks. Encourage them to get exercise and sufficient sleep. And in general, let them know you care about them.

If you’d like more support around managing a sensitive professional, I’d love to help. Reach out for a complimentary consultation.

If you’re a sensitive person, how can you thrive at work?

First, you should know that managers tend to find sensitive professionals to make the best employees (according to 2011 research by Shrivastava) — because we’re self-motivated, visionary, compassionate, and creative.

However, if we don’t get the support we need — like a quiet enough environment to work, or protection from abuse of the negative coworkers — we’re likely to get depressed and our contribution will naturally start to diminish.

So it’s vital that you tell your manager and co-workers the factors you need to thrive. If you are sensitive, learn to stand up for yourself. Practice excellent self-care, including taking care of your health, your sleep, and your emotional state.
If you’re a sensitive professional and need clarity about your career direction, coaching to feel more confident at work, or guidance managing stress and conflict at work, I’m here  to help. Please reach out for a complimentary consultation.

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