In 2023, a fantastic book by authors Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo was published, Sensitive: The Power of a Thoughtful Mind in an Overwhelming World. In it, the authors set about reclaiming the label of sensitivity, and establishing what it can really mean to be a sensitive person. When we hear this phrase, it may evoke ideas of someone who is shy, quiet, anxious or otherwise unauthoritative. The authors seek to shine a light on what this trait also means: someone who is considerate and experiences the world and their surroundings deeply. They argue that the stereotypes of the sensitive artist or creative isn't the only profession to fit the term; CEOs and leaders can be equally sensitive and still thrive in their role. This is down to five 'superpowers' that Granneman and Sólo put forth, two of which we will discuss here: Empathy and Depth of Processing. So how do these traits characterise the overall trait of sensitivity, and how can they be of great benefit to leaders in the workplace? Let's start with empathy.
Empathy is the ability to share the emotions of others with yourself and something that sensitive people are likely to excel in as a skill. When someone is speaking to you as a empathetic person, you would share not just their emotions but also the associated physical sensation, effectively mirroring the state of the other person. Inherent in this is the ability to listen and remain present with the other person, a key skill for anyone in a leadership position. Indeed, empathy can benefit the workplace. Research reported by Forbes found that empathy can have positive effects on innovation, employee engagement and retention, among others. When someone in a leadership position can tap into how an employee feels, and effectively feel it themselves, it may encourage decision-making that will benefit the company.
Crucially, being fair and responsive to the needs of your employees is a key part of good leadership. People care deeply about being treated fairly as it indicates to them a level of acceptance within a group, and this can be encouraged through empathy. We say this because even if no solution is currently present for, say, employee experience concerns, being empathetic can be good enough. Showing you care by checking in, mirroring and responding to the feelings and emotions of your employees can at least provide comfort in the knowledge of having your concerns heard. A problem shared is a problem halved. We see this in our own consulting projects when we look into sentiment data. People appreciate being responded to and understood even if the problem can't be fixed then and there. It can often mean the difference between a low score - you haven't fixed my issue, and a middle to high score - my issue isn't resolved but support was as helpful as they could be. A solution should be striven for of course, but until that point, empathy is the support that helps us through.
Depth of Processing
To process information means to evaluate our inputs relative to the situation or circumstances. In the business world, processing occurs every time we need to reply to an email, consider the next strategies in our projects, or take on new projects. Instead of jumping into a decision without full consideration, the depth of processing commonly found in sensitive people means that full consideration from all sides will be taken into account when it comes to decision-making. Where this is a beneficial skill for leaders arises from the fact that all sides are considered. Rather than jumping to adopt the newest tool because it's in the limelight, leaders with good information processing skills will consider the needs of the business and employees, conduct more analysis around the benefits and implementation, and can more accurately predict the outcome of the decision in reality.
This skill of deep information processing links well with empathy and can be a great benefit to employee experience initiatives. Indeed, empathy has been identified in research as a driving factor for us to respond to the needs of other. If, for example, employees are complaining of poor experience with the tech they use at work, a sensitive leader would take this to heart and consider the possibilities and most appropriate solutions to tackle these concerns. They would look thoroughly into the solutions available and consider how they might tackle each concern, thereby maximising the chance of success in this decision. This isn't a snap decision likely to fade or face resistance, but a well-considered and planned one, akin to way we often rollout new tools to particular sections of an organisation to gauge and analyse how successful it is, and, more importantly, could be for the wider organisation.
There is of course much more to this discussion than what we've put to screen. There are three more powers in Granneman and Sólo's book that sensitive people are likely to hold alongside the above, covered in more detail as well as the means and strategies to utilise these powers to their fullest. This article isn't the place to explore them all, but what we hope to do is effectively highlight the mission the authors set out on: to reframe 'sensitive' from something people are often hesitant to admit to into something we can embrace. This article is not sponsored in any way, just inspired. Being sensitive and in a leadership position does not signify unassertiveness or indecisiveness, but instead holds very real benefits for employee experience and organisations in general. If you would like help in determining the sentiment of your own organisation and how best to address and manage it, take a look at our experience consulting options, or contact us for more details.
Brower, T. (2022) Empathy is the most important leadership skill according to research, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2021/09/19/empathy-is-the-most-important-leadership-skill-according-to-research/
Cornelis, I. et al. (2013) When leaders choose to be fair: Follower Belongingness needs and leader empathy influences leaders’ adherence to procedural fairness rules, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103113000528
Granneman, J. and Solo, A. (2023) Sensitive: The Power of a Thoughtful Mind in an Overwhelming World. London: Penguin Books Ltd.