How to Recognize and Manage Sensitive People in the Workplace

What are the sensitivity levels among your workforce? Can you detect the sensitive people in your organization? You should! Here’s why.

Employee Experience
People Insights

Christine Chartrand

VP Consulting Services

Monday, May 11, 2015


What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a sensitive employee? You’ve probably made a mental list of all the negative, undesirable aspects, and you’re not alone. People typically find it easier to look at all the wrongs, the weaknesses, even the risks associated with such a trait.

This is ironic because if there were ever a time to point out some positive aspects of one’s personality before getting into their shortcomings, it’s with sensitive people. But more on that later.

Let’s get into what “being sensitive” really means before finding ways to better manage them.

Look at sensitivity on a spectrum

If you use an effective tool to determine one’s natural reflexes, you’d see that the sensitivity dimension falls on a spectrum, varying in intensity or degrees of sensitivity levels depending on where a person “scores”.

High levels of sensitivity not only indicates that this trait is a lot more deep-seated and apparent, but that it’s going to require a lot more effort and energy to go against or overcome this natural tendency. It means this personality feature is very much a part of who that person is, and will likely remain unwavering, regardless of the context.

On the other hand, if you score on the complete opposite end, it doesn’t mean you are incapable of being sensitive, but that you have a stronger resilience and endurance level. There are of course people who score somewhere in the middle.

So the question isn’t if someone is sensitive or not, but what their level of sensitivity is.

Enough with this image of crying and emotional outburst

Don’t be surprised if the sensitive people in your organization are not overly demonstrative. This preconceived notion that being sensitive means you cry at the drop of a hat needs to be cleared up. The sensitive personality dimension doesn’t mean you are susceptible to tearing up, but that you will have the tendency to take criticism more personally, that you will feel victimized more easily, and that difficult conditions at work will be a bigger source of discouragement and will drain your energy.

See, even I’m highlighting the “not-so-good” aspects of sensitive people from the get-go. So let me start over.

Highly sensitive people have this amazing ability to demonstrate empathy, to sense when others are going through hardship, to understand the need for people to be taken care of. They may have more of an emotional connection with clients, with the products or services they are selling, and show more compassion.

But how sensitive people choose to express their sensitivity can vary. So crying is not a requisite.

It’s all about a person’s energy

Some may say that sensitive people walk around with a target on their backs, and automatically assume they are weak. But it’s not about being weak or strong, it’s about how much of your energy is drained when you are faced with a negative comment, refusals or the taxing world of office politics.

The energy of sensitive people will take a harder hit, and may even need more time before it is restored again. Conversely, if they are exposed to a lot of positivity, encouragement and positive reinforcement, their energy rises, which means they are probably at their best.

So how do we bring out the best in our sensitive employees?

The first step is knowing

Once you can uncover who among your workforce have higher levels of sensitivity, you can then begin to re-examine the way you communicate with these people.

Are you extremely to-the-point with your comments? Do you only go see them when something is wrong? When’s the last time you acknowledged their good work? All these things, no matter how trivial you may think they are, can have an impact on sensitive people.

It’s up to you to decide if that impact will be positive or negative!

A “good job” can go a long way for sensitive people

To maintain the energy levels of sensitive people, managers must understand that they need to give them positive reinforcement. Some think that mentioning employees’ good performance to other managers during a board meeting is enough, but I’m talking about telling that employee directly! Making it a point to approach them and give a nice pat on the back. When it comes straight from the horse’s mouth, it can be a lot more motivating.

If you are extremely busy, as most people are, then you might need little reminders. So take a few minutes and book mini follow-ups in your calendar with certain employees so that you can see how they are doing. The aim of these follow-ups should be less about task and deadlines, and more about getting to know the state of mind of these employees, to identify their sources of motivation, demotivation and remind them that they are a valuable asset to the organization.

Doesn’t have to be long, it just has to be!

When the going gets tough…

If your organization is going through a difficult time, or if the work environment is getting very heavy and unpleasant, it may be affecting your sensitive employees more than you think.

Remember, sensitive people may experience their energy drop in a very discreet way, so pay attention! Look at body language, offer support, either from you or through services offered within the company, show some vulnerability yourself, let them know that you are taking the necessary steps to understand your team, and that they can approach you if needed.

Be careful of your endurant blinders

Endurant people typically take criticism well, don’t easily feel victimized and typically maintain their energy levels even when faced with difficult circumstances. They may also assume that others around them are as endurant as they are, thus paying less attention to the repercussions that their comments may have on sensitive employees.

They may have the tendency to minimize the impact a specific situation can have on others, even appear harsh at times by their fellow sensitive co-workers. As a manager, it is important to understand how your own sensitivity levels (whether high or low), can influence your employees.

If you are very endurant, it may require even more effort to acknowledge and empathize with someone who is going through a decline in energy that you might not have experienced in his/her place. All the more reason to understand the compatibility between you and your employees.

Sensitive people have many great qualities: they demonstrate a lot of empathy, sense when people are going through difficult times and understand the need to be taken care of by others. Yet when faced with criticism, refusals and other unpleasant conditions, their energy levels will drop. As their manager, it is important to look at your own sensitivity levels and re-assess your approaches. Choose your words wisely, remember to look at the positive aspects of their work, follow-up on their state of mind, especially after tougher situations, and don’t presume that just because employees are not outward with their sensitivity that it doesn’t exist.

Finally, implement a human capital solution that can help you understand how each member of your team is built so that you can give them the proper motivation they need.

What are the sensitivity levels among your workforce?

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