Courage for career women blog

with Vanessa May

How to use sensitivity as a strength in leadership.

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My lived experience has been that my sensitivity has often been judged as a weakness, marginalised and made wrong.  I have received comments like, “you’re too fluffy” or “you’re too sensitive” or “that’s not important here” most of my life.  For many years I internalised the view that my sensitivity was a weakness and wrongly concluded that something must be wrong with me.  I took on the advice to “toughen up” and focus on logic, facts and evidence over emotion.  In this perspective leadership is about being clear and extroverted, focusing on results, stepping into the fray and pushing forward.

But I know now that this approach is limited and doesn’t actually achieve the best results. Why? Because people are human and as such we feel things. Our emotions impact our thoughts and behaviours and in turn our ability to achieve results.  If we only allow ourselves to focus on tasks and results, our connections, our conversations and our meetings lack something vital. In this place we operate with half of the data available to us.  And it’s the missing half that can truly undermine things.  After all, the Gallup data tells us that UK employees are one of the most disengaged workforces in Europe. 

So how do claim our sensitivity as a strength when marginalisation is still an issue in our workplaces?

1. Slow down and focus on what matters.

It is said that the average person is processing 74 GB in information per day. That’s a huge requirement for our senses to process and it’s easy to be overwhelmed.  The challenge we all have is to focus in on what truly matters.  For highly sensitive people we tune in to understand what’s really going on  and if we allow ourselves to focus on that will pick up on things that others don’t.  We can sense if things are going well or not.  We can sense a change in the energy but only if slow down and pay attention to it.

2. Identify for yourself the gifts that your sensitivity brings.

I remember once being called into a disciplinary meeting to give HR advice.  I quietly listened and observed that the manager was in procedural mode and talking at the individual.  I sensed something wasn’t being said and I paused everything and gently asked the individual what was occurring for him. He described a feeling of being micro-managed and feeling incredibly anxious.  The manager had moved to sit near him with the intention of helping but it was making the person feel even more anxious and hyper-vigilant so he was spending more time worrying than actually doing anything.  The manager was surprised to hear this and hadn’t thought how his actions might be having an unintended impact on the person’s confidence.  What followed was an open and mutual conversation about how to support this person to do great work and the individual turned everything around in a short space of time.  In this example the gift in my sensitivity was my ability to sense and listen in between the words to the emotional field. I was able to speak to this in a way that created more safety and the person was able to let their defences down.  Sensitivity often brings qualities of curiosity, listening, empathy, creativity and innovation.  My recommendation is that you explore your moments of sensitivity and consider what gift they brought.

3. Notice the impact of your sensitivity

People often say to me things like, “I can’t believe I just told you that.” Or another thing I hear often is, “you see and say things I feel but didn’t let myself say.”  I think it’s because now I let my sensitivity lead and I’m continuously doing my inner work to let go of my fear of rejection and not fitting in.  My advice is to pay attention to what people say about your impact when you use your sensitivity because what you appreciate grows.

4. Own your sensitivity

For many years I put myself down.  I let people with rank or authority overpower me.  I masked with my people pleasing, letting my fear of being different and belonging run me.  I wanted to be smart, like everyone else and I secretly worried I was stupid. It was an exhausting cycle of pushing and proving.  It always took me to the same place of burnout.  When we own our sensitivity as a gift we accept that part of us that knows and senses things. We stop hiding in plain sight and we start showing up for ourselves and for the impact our gift can have in the world.

Last week I attended with Global Warriors an Amplify programme with Ginger leadership communications.  We were asked to create a small talk on something we care about and share it on social media.  I chose sensitivity because I believe without sensitivity we crash into things and have an unintended impact.  Too often in our virtual spaces, meetings and conversations we tap out of our sensing.  We ignore our intuition and focus on the task list and the doing elements. Whilst I believe that results matter, without a shift in the emotional field, rarely will we be truly brilliant together.

My invitation to you is to spend some time with your sensitivity and to fully witness the magic it brings to your relationships at work and at home.  Decide to back and trust your sensitivity – it’s your super power.  And the next time someone tells you to “toughen up,” decide not to take that on.  We need your softness and sensitivity to create connection, nurture creativity and build relationships that together build impactful results. And finally, you can check out my very rough first draught of my talk have a look below.