Riding the label wave: What does it mean to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) in today’s work environment?

By August 27, 2018Uncategorized

Last week I attended a Salesforce User Group meetup on Equality. Set in the astoundingly light-filled and well-stocked Salesforce offices in Sydney, we had the great honour of meeting and listening to Tony Prophet, Chief Equality Officer at Salesforce, who was in town for 48 hours and took the opportunity to touch base with the Sydney Salesforce users, a group he envisions to be leading the pack in equality matters in town.

Tony openly shared his story and his set of challenges around being black and growing up in America in the 60s. It must have been a tough journey. We also spoke about other minorities, such as women in tech, the LGBTI community and people living with mental illness, and explored ways to better integrate these groups into business. Everyone agreed that while a lot of work still needs to be done, huge milestones were recently achieved in acknowledging these minorities as equal parts of our society. The fact that Australia voted “Yes” last year is just one example for the positive shift that we are currently witnessing. Despite the difficult topic, it was a non-provocative and encouraging discussion.

Yet, somewhere during the second presentation I started feeling shifty. Having lived with a hidden label all my life, I couldn’t help but feel that while everyone is rushing to include minorities into business these days, my own little quirky group remains completely overlooked. I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP): a quiet achiever, an observer of people and a processor of emotions. Usually, people just find me shy, quiet or arrogant, and stay away from me.

In many ways, this particular trait can be extremely debilitating and destructive for a career; much more so than being an expat in a foreign workforce or a woman in tech (I am both of these as well, so I know). What if we acknowledged and treated HSPs as an inclusive minority? And how is this achievable given that HSPs are utterly useless at speaking up and expressing their needs?

If I weren’t so terrible at making my voice heard I might have asked that question during the discussion we had last week. However, depending on the day, even showing up at these meetups and other networking events can require a good deal of Pep talking in front of the mirror, because frankly, a room full of people who are all engaged in deep, important sounding conversation scares the hell out of me. Speaking up in a discussion can feel like the equivalent of jumping from a plane several thousand meters above the ground with no parachute.

High Sensitivity is a trait, not an illness

Being a HSP isn’t something you become, it’s something you are born with. In a nutshell, it means that you feel more deeply and empathetically than your average Jo. Absorbing everyone’s emotions and processing your own in high definition all the time means that you also get overwhelmed pretty quickly.

This is something I intuitively knew all my life – and something that I came to despise and deny because wanting to be alone and getting anxious and overwhelmed frequently isn’t something our society responds to fondly. You can imagine the wave of relief that washed over me when my psychologist told me that I could stop fighting who I was because it was just something I was born with, a wiring of my brain – and something I should embrace rather than despise.

Being a HSP doesn’t mean that I never party, or that I break into tears all the time. In fact, I can be very outgoing and fun if I want to be. What it does mean, however, is that some things that other people seem to do effortlessly are near impossible for me. I choke under observation, and I can’t speak in front of a group of people without blushing furiously. Brainstorming session are my ultimate pet-peeve.

To survive in a business setting, I needed to understand and embrace the fact that being around people all day drains me. Recharging alone after spending a full day at the office is a vital part of functioning, which makes home office a preferred option. Having to talk to more than one person at a time or picking up the phone to call a client can leave me flustered for hours. I work best alone, or in a team of two. I crumble easily under too much pressure, and after work beers only work for me if I don’t have to be social and engaged in conversation while sipping a cold stout.

I also have terrible stage fright that even endless hours of presentation training couldn’t fix. Ironically, in my company I get chosen for presentations because when I can’t weasel out of them any more I do them thoroughly, and well (albeit red-faced), rehearsing and adjusting day and night in the days leading up to The Event.

What does that mean for business?

So while I was sitting in the last week’s Salesforce Equality presentation, I started wondering where I fit in. Being a HSP is acknowledged as a trait, but it doesn’t qualify as a mental illness, so that category is out of the question for me. Yet, the struggle is real and we have needs different to those from most people. We suffer enormously in today’s business environment. I would very much like companies to start acknowledging and working towards those needs (I have so many ideas on how to do that! If only there were a platform where I could speak up without speaking up!).

At the same time, us HSPs have some desirable advantages over other workers that companies should be utilising rather overlooking. I’m not blaming companies for doing that – HSPs are just not good at opening their mouths and speaking up – so being overlooked is something we grow up with.

For my part, I am still wondering how I ended up in Sales. Being a sales rep is probably one of the worst jobs for me, even though a lot of my clients seem to appreciate the fact that I simply cannot be pushy or anything but authentic. Yet – it does involve a lot of peopling and steep pressure targets, both of which certainly don’t make me thrive.

I have a good brain for tech and web development, though. I am flying through Salesforce Trailhead, collecting badges like they are candy, and I’m learning Microsoft Dynamics in home study at night. I also have an amazing eye for design and I do beautiful websites, all optimised for Google – only no-one will likely ever know about this because I am not shouting it from the rooftops. In a business meeting, I can very quickly observe and size up everyone in the room, even understand their motives and feel the dynamics of why and when a meeting went wrong. My antennae are not only always on, but also very good at analysing.

I even make a good leader and manager, one that listens to people and then guides them rather than pushing personal agendas onto teams. I think and act strategically and calmly. And apparently, I’m quite smart and knowledgeable, too!

So why am I still stuck in Sales, when I could be doing all these other creative things that are so much better suited for me? Well, the sad truth is that even if I did make it to a job interview for a job I really wanted, I would most likely completely blow the interview with my being too shy and quiet. It’s a vicious cycle that only HSPs understand, and that’s why so many of us cling on to jobs that may not be best for us simply because of our inability to convince a potential employer of our worth.

Moving forward, I would really like to see more of us HSPs being picked for jobs that we can shine in, and in which we can make a real difference for the companies that are willing to take us on. In HSP revolution terms, that means re-thinking the whole recruitment process and hiring people not based on how loudly they can toot their own horn, but how well they are suited. I may also involve re-thinking the whole interview-style recruitment process during which no HSP can ever win.

In my ideal world, companies would provide a framework for us HSPs to function at our best, while also pushing us a little to come out of our shells occasionally. This is how I envision we could work inclusively and achieve maximum growth. And what better time to act upon this than now? We are taking huge steps towards a more balanced world in marriage equality, mental health awareness, indigenous equality and most other areas where minorities are struggling. Maybe there will even be a time where the quiet ones amongst us are finally heard.