Sensitivity can be workplace gold

By Helen Frances

Indeed, in terms of corporate success and wisdom, this trait is the balancing yang to brashness' gung-ho yin.

That colleague in a quiet corner may not be the introvert you think they are.
That colleague in a quiet corner may not be the introvert you think they are.

The employee who seeks the quiet zones of an open plan office may not be shy nor sulking. They could be highly sensitive and taking time out to process a lot of information most of us are unaware of. When people work to their preferences for sensory-processing sensitivity and sensation seeking, workplace productivity and well-being are likely to improve, find two experts in the field.

Dr Elaine Aron, the world authority on the trait of high sensitivity, and Janine Ramsey, HR practitioner and sensitivity style specialist, recently presented a public lecture and a half-day course in Wellington on the traits.

High sensitivity ("sensory-processing sensitivity") is an innate trait found in 15 to 20 per cent of people. It reflects a particular survival strategy - being observant before acting - and, as Aron discovered in years of research, it is different from shyness and introversion even though it may seem like these at first glance (30 per cent with the trait actually are extroverts). Sensation seeking is about how much variety and action people need.

"The two traits determine [an] optimum level for performance at work. We perform at our best when we are sufficiently stimulated but not overwhelmed," Ramsey says. "Sensitivity style underpins the way in which an individual relates to and behaves in the work environment. It's a key predictor of how a person will perceive and experience the physical environment and the behaviour of others."

Ramsey has developed a "sensitivity style" model based on scientific research into the temperament traits of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) and high sensation seeking (HSS). There are four types: pure high sensation seekers (HSS); highly sensitive persons (HSP); highly sensitive + high sensation seekers combining both traits; "sensible" types, who are neither HSSs nor HSPs.

"The discussions are lively as each type learns about the others, appreciates the others, sheds negative stereotypes, and develops communication skills that work with all four types," Aron says. "You can imagine how many bullying problems would be resolved without even needing to discuss them."

Sensitivity is a notion that many shy away from in Western cultures. New Zealand and Australia lag behind European, British and Scandinavian countries in appreciation of the traits, Ramsey says. A study that compared attitudes of children with the HSP trait in Shanghai and Canada found Canadian HSP children were teased and bullied more frequently than their peers. In Shanghai, they were the most popular, the best behaved and wisest among classmates.

The findings could be relevant to the workplace. Far from being weak wimps, those who are highly sensitive have strengths that can contribute depth and foresight - helping companies to make wise, rather than quick, possibly rash, decisions, says Ramsey. Sensitive people notice more internal and external information, including social and emotional cues. They process this information more slowly and deeply than others and can become overwhelmed by stimuli, needing time and space to recover. This needs to be taken into account in open plan workplaces. As they are natural problem solvers, sensitive people will think about the consequences of decisions. However, they may be seen as resisters, troublesome or non-compliant.

"It's like a football team that needs the different types of players to make the whole work. If they were all goal kickers we wouldn't do too well obviously. [Together] there is great potential for meeting the goals of their companies," Ramsay says.

She says high sensation seekers need a lot of stimulation. The rare breed with HSS and HSP are often found in the performing arts. They combine adventure seeking, curiosity and the need to investigate, with depth of processing and sensitivity.

"Sensible" types with neither of these traits (about 70 per cent of people) need above all to feel competent in their work.

"It's a matter of opening people's minds up to the fact that people do work differently and need different environments to be able to work at their best," Ramsey says. For example, KPIs (key performance interviews) that assess performance against "contributing actively in group meetings and making quick decisions" are really measuring aspects of innate personality that drive certain people to do things quite comfortably.

"That reflects the company's culture, and also our culture's preference for bold, expressive, quick people. It is not reflective of people with a different processing or reflective style. Peak organisational performance is achieved when all styles are represented, understood, respected and valued for the unique contributions they make."

- NZ Herald

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