8 mins

Being a sensitive leader is an asset that can sometimes feel like a weakness. Learn how to harness sensitivity to help others through the current period of industry volatility.

At work, being seen as sensitive can often be a criticism, unjustly pinning you with a label that can undermine your skills, talents, value, and contributions. It can perpetuate a false perception, ranging from underperformance and inefficiency, to weakness or being a pushover.

“Ideal” leadership traits often skew towards someone bold, brash, and confident. This subliminal expectation of leadership qualities can cause sensitive, yet highly qualified and capable, individuals to hold themselves back in their careers, convinced that they are “not leadership material”.

In cases where these talented individuals do get promoted to managerial and leadership positions, they can find themselves suffering silently from crippling imposter syndrome. 

If there’s a pattern of you being at the receiving end of comments such as: “You’re too sensitive”; “You take everything so personally”; or “You need to grow thicker skin”; I would hazard a guess that it has made you – an otherwise accomplished and hardworking individual – feel misunderstood, inadequate, demoralized, and excluded in a workplace where your unique traits are not the default.

Sensitivity as a superpower

In an uncertain economy, like the one we’re in right now, your innate sensitivity traits can make you an effective leader and a valuable asset to your company. Why? Because studies have shown that having this trait helps you to lead and communicate in empathetic, enriching, and deeper ways.

Dr. Elaine Aron began researching the high sensitivity trait in 1991, subsequently coining the term highly sensitive person (HSP). Her theory on HSPs states that about 20% of the world’s population has a highly attuned nervous system that extensively processes information both within and around them.  

High sensitivity traits show up in equal numbers between both men and women. That said, men with the HSP trait may experience challenges with this fact as in many cultures (especially western cultures) today, toxic perceptions of masculinity prohibit men from showing their emotions. And if they do, they can often feel marginalized or even ostracized from their peers.

Since publishing The Highly Sensitive Person, this trait (also known by its scientific term, sensory processing sensitivity) has been supported by extensive experiments and research, ranging from brain imaging studies, to genetic analysis.

What’s fundamental to understand is that high sensitivity is not a condition or a behavioral problem. It is also not just another name for introversion – as cited in Dr. Aron’s book, research shows that 30% of HSPs are indeed extroverted. 

How do you know if you’re highly sensitive?

Beyond experiencing being told, “You’re too sensitive,” there are other qualifiers that you might want to look out for. Perhaps you’re someone who gets easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noise, strong smells, or even coarse fabrics. Maybe you’re someone who is deeply moved by works of art or music and has a rich inner life (this may manifest as a profound and vivid imagination, a keen interest in the written word, or an acute introspective nature). Dr. Aron’s website offers a helpful self-test to identify if you are indeed an HSP. 

Why should this matter to you now? 

The potential impact on you as a sensitive engineering leader is three-fold:

First, if you’re a 30-something engineering leader today, chances are that the current economic market and industry volatility is the first of its kind you have encountered – adding to the grueling demands of leading your team during the recent global pandemic. Navigating such uncertain and uncharted waters is stressful, confusing, and hard enough, without being an HSP on top of all of that.

Second, in the workplace (particularly in technology), a very real downside can be the perception that you’re not tough enough, or capable enough, to be a leader in an environment dominated by 80% of non-HSPs. 

Finally, when layoffs occur, you end up in one of two camps: 

1. “Camp laid off” and out of a job or,
2. “Camp survivor”, left behind to pick up the pieces and keep going. In this second camp, you’re not only a survivor, you’re still a leader. 

Suddenly, the stress and expectations on you as an engineering leader intensify. People are looking to you for answers, support, and guidance, as all of you struggle with the very human emotions of fear, uncertainty, survivor guilt, and concern about your future. And it’s your job to effectively lead and reassure these individuals. 

First, ensure that they are all motivated and focused – both professionally and personally – because ultimately the work needs to continue to get done for the business to keep moving forward.  

Navigating this as a sensitive leader

Here are a few practical, tried-and-true ways in which sensitive engineering leaders can be more effective during this time of uncertainty. 

1. Prioritizing your own needs first 

Before takeoff, what’s the one thing that the cabin crew conducting the overview of emergency protocols always say?

“Should an emergency situation occur, put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help those around you.”

As a sensitive person and leader, your default is usually putting everyone else and their needs first. Your own needs are placed last, if not completely ignored. Self-care is not simply a nice-to-have for you as a sensitive person, it’s a non-negotiable.  

A couple of easy things you can try to help prioritize your own needs: 

  • There’s so much hype about ‘starting your day right’ but how about ending it right instead?
    What would you be able to accomplish with more and better-quality sleep? Would you be open to experimenting with an early evening wind-down routine that includes a warm, comforting non-caffeinated tea, and turning off all your screens by 9pm so that you can fully unplug at the end of each day? And yes, that means no Netflix or any other streaming services.
  • How about getting your body moving?
    Let me be clear, no one is asking you to sign up at your local gym, or to invest in a piece of home fitness equipment that will become an arty “laundry tree” within two weeks. 

    Movement can be as simple as doing some gentle stretches in your office chair during the day. Or what about having a spontaneous five-minute solo dance party in the kitchen while you’re making yourself a snack, or whenever you’re refilling your water bottle? 

2. Trust your “no”

There are times we all get trapped in the mode of overthinking and second-guessing our decisions. Sensitive people even more so. 

Many times, this can take you down a slippery slope of: 

a) saying yes to everything, even when you really mean no; and 
b) chronic people-pleasing.

Lean into saying “no” when your knee-jerk reaction is to say “yes”. The more you do so, the more that instinct strengthens and becomes second nature.

It may be hard to let go of black-or-white thinking, but this gives you room to respond to things instead of reacting. In other words, hit pause. Then, check in with yourself to determine if you’re responding or reacting. 

Learning to do a simple “pattern interrupt” like this is a useful and powerful skill to add to your toolbox. 

3. Owning and trusting your own leadership style

Finally, if owning and leading with your natural traits and gifts of sensitivity has been a struggle for you, try this small but mighty exercise. 

Start by setting aside some quiet, uninterrupted time of about 30-40 minutes. Turn off Slack and other notifications so that there’s nothing to distract you. Grab a notebook and a pen. (Yes, we’re going old-school here. Studies show that writing by hand increases brain activity and memory retention.)  

Then, answer the following questions, with complete honesty.  

  1. What is your genuine leadership and communication style? The one that feels the best, the most natural, and even effortless to you? Conversely, what styles come completely unnaturally to you but feel as though are the ones you should be doing?
  2. As a leader, what activities in your day-to-day life energize and light you up? Conversely, what activities drain and deplete you? 
  3. What's the single biggest challenge you’re facing right now? Does this challenge tie into something you or others consider a blind spot for you?
  4.  What actions have you taken so far to overcome this challenge? If these actions are not working, what different actions can you take that are aligned with your natural sensitivity traits to overcome this challenge?

After completing this exercise, evaluate your findings. Do you see a clearer, bigger picture, and new choices – options that you hadn’t considered before? What about new ways forward? 

Final thoughts

Your role as an engineering leader has never been more important as it is right now during this time of widespread layoffs and economic uncertainty. 

Remember, as a sensitive leader you are naturally thoughtful, attentive, creative, productive, perceptive, and possess high levels of emotional intelligence – just what the tech industry needs right now. So, tap into it! 

That said, there is no magic pill to help navigate this volatile environment. 

For you as a sensitive leader, it starts with your willingness to unapologetically be who you are. By owning, valuing, and leaning into your natural assets. 

And as difficult as work, life, and the world might seem right now, this time can also be one of the greatest opportunities for growth, development, and empowerment you will ever have in your professional and personal life.