Accelerate Business Success By Unleashing the Power of Highly Sensitive People in the Workplace

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By Keryn Gold, PhD

I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of the word “sensitive.” It has associations with snowflakes and a lack of resilience. But decades of research by Dr. Elaine Aron and others reveal that over 20% of the working population have a genetically and neurologically verifiable trait that endows them with enhanced perceptiveness and empathy, and an apparent gift for seeing around corners. People with these gifts were dubbed “Highly Sensitive People” (HSPs).

When I first heard this moniker, I bristled. Especially as a woman in business, few workplace statements are more dreaded than “don’t be so sensitive.” As I talk with others about this topic, some have a similar visceral aversion. While this might not be fair, it’s a reality for many, and detracts from the more important point of the discussion.

I’m a big proponent of meeting people where they are, so for today, let’s set the word “sensitive” aside. What if I told you that hidden within your organization are people who excel at strategic planning and processing complex information, are perceptive, thoughtful, dependable, overachieving, self-driven, and tie their value to their ability to make a positive impact? Would you want to find them and empower them to accelerate success for your organization? 

These are your Highly Sensitive People, your HSPs. But let’s not call them that, let’s call them OPALS:

  • Overachieving
  • Perceptive
  • Altruistic
  • Leaders (and)
  • Strategists

Opals can be lackluster in certain settings, but in the right light, they are absolutely brilliant. So too are OPALS. They have some of the most important characteristics businesses need to thrive, lead, and stay ahead of the curve in this increasingly uncertain world — they only need to be empowered to shine.

How can OPALS empower your business?

OPALS have an almost prophetic ability to predict the future. It’s not anything supernatural, but a difference in genetics and neurochemistry that give these individuals an enhanced ability to process and synthesize a massive amount of information simultaneously and continuously. These differences in how OPALS process information are visible and measurable via functional MRI (fMRI) brain scans, and they have different, shorter variations in their serotonin transporter gene (SERT) compared to non-HSPs. Here are some ways this can manifest positively in a business setting:

Overachieving: The drive for excellence

OPALS possess an innate drive for excellence and consistently go above and beyond to deliver exceptional results. Their commitment to quality, attention to detail, and relentless drive make them invaluable assets who strive to make a positive impact.

Perceptive: Tuning into subtle signals

OPALS keenly observe and interpret the subtle operational and emotional cues and signals from everything and everyone they interact with. Their ability to detect underlying dynamics, anticipate trends, and identify opportunities and optimal paths forward can guide strategic decision-making and accelerate success.

Altruistic: Cultivating a culture of care

OPALS have a natural inclination toward compassion and empathy, and genuine concern for the well-being of others. By fostering a culture that values compassion and altruism, you can create a workplace where everyone thrives.

Leaders: Guiding with intuition and insight

When put in positions of leadership, OPALS shine if they’ve learned how to delegate, as they possess a deep understanding of their team members’ needs and motivations. Their intuitive, compassionate guidance, insightful perspective, and ability to create a sense of psychological safety pave the way for empowered teams and transformational results.

Strategists: Connecting seemingly unrelated dots

Whether leaders or individual contributors, OPALS make exceptional strategists. They possess an ability to connect dots in ways others are simply not wired to, anticipate implications, and see the bigger picture. Their strategic thinking and holistic perspective can empower organizations to accelerate achievement of their multi-year plans and foster innovation. 

These leaders and strategists are already among us: roughly 1 in 5 people are OPALS, they just often find themselves in positions that don’t speak to their strengths.

Downsides to being an OPAL and how to overcome them

Overachieving: Overdoing it and burning out

Because they care so deeply about making an impact, delivering results, and exceeding expectations, OPALS can burn out if they aren’t valued, appreciated, or in the right roles, and can take negative feedback personally if they don’t feel understood.

Perceptive: Exhaustion from feeling everything

Because they can walk into a room and often feel and absorb everyone’s feelings, and are constantly optimizing and iterating and parsing through thousands of different past and present stimuli simultaneously to try to figure out the best thing to do in any given moment, people interactions can be exhausting, whether OPALS are introverts of extroverts (70% of OPALS are introverts). OPALS both feel and process things deeply, and they internalize everything. This is why constant interaction (live or virtual) can be draining for OPALS if they aren’t given sufficient time and space to recharge.

Altruistic: Self-sacrifice and lack of balance

OPALS care so much for their teams, loved ones, and others that they happily give to the point of self-sacrifice, which can be acutely unhealthy and lead to a lack of balance. They can people-please to a fault. Having appropriate systems, processes, and support structures in place to prevent this can set these individuals up for success.

Leaders: Sacrificing to protect their people

When in positions of leadership, care must be taken to ensure OPALS don’t overextend and shoulder the burden of all their people – they need to learn to delegate appropriately.

Strategists: Non-linear processing 

OPALS are natural strategists, but they need to be trained in how to influence and communicate their strategic insights and ideas, as they often arrive at them intuitively and in a highly non-linear fashion that non-OPALS struggle to follow if not packaged appropriately. This can be trained, but in the absence of this, OPALS can feel like Cassandras, cursed to be able to accurately predict the future, but never be believed. As you can imagine, this can be incredibly demoralizing and disillusioning.

How to find and empower OPALs

So how do we find these individuals and empower them to set themselves, and others, up for success? The answer is simple, you survey your entire organization and ask them to answer some very simple questions (fun fact, I’ve found that surveying your organization in this way and taking action on their responses helps set everyone up for success, whether OPALS or not):

10-Question Survey: 2-5 sentences responses to each question

I’m a big proponent of quarterly “Idea Bounces” in the form of surveys to give all employees across the organization the ability to ideate, contribute, feel heard and understood, and accelerate organizational success. I usually ask something like this:

  1. From your perspective, what’s the biggest challenge facing the organization today?
  2. Why should we care about this problem & what is its impact?
  3.  What would you do to solve this problem?
  4. What do you think the organization is doing well? What would you have us do more of?
  5. What are the most important things you think we need to stop doing, and why?
  6. What do you think we as an organization need to start doing to better empower our people?
  7. If you were in charge of making these changes, what would you need in order to make this happen?
  8. What are your preferred communication channel(s) (eg email, Slack, text, phone call, live meeting, etc) and why? 
  9. When you’re brainstorming new ideas, how do you like to brainstorm (eg, live with large groups, 1:1, asynchronously in writing, etc)?
  10. What do you do outside of work to recharge?

By surveying all employees, you give them a forum to be seen and feel like they matter. Many won’t respond, but the people who care will. And the OPALS will likely be the ones with the greatest care and depth of thought put into their responses. In reviewing the responses, it is usually easy to pick out the OPALS. Rank all employees’ ideas, take action on the good ones, and you can bank on it being accretive to the entire organization. Over time, you can put these strategists in positions where their natural abilities shine, and their challenges are overcome through empowering tools, processes, and/or some light coaching or training (e.g. learning to communicate their non-linear thoughts more concisely and providing one big idea at a time).

Empowering HSPs/OPALS sets your organization up for success

OPALs feel deeply, can burn out quickly in the wrong environments, and thrive with appreciation, schedule flexibility, and autonomy. But so do most humans. OPALS are your canaries in the coal mine, in tune with the dynamics of the organization without even trying. By understanding and harnessing the strengths of OPALS and putting in place systems, processes, and policies that create an environment where they can shine, you bring out the best not only of them, but of all employees throughout your organization and accelerate innovation and business success.

About the Author: Keryn Gold, PhD, is an award-winning business and consulting leader, scientist, and executive strategist and advisor who empowers organizations to achieve the seemingly impossible: uncovering hidden profits to accelerate innovation, unlocking the potential of employees, and achieving greater balance and autonomy, without having to clone anyone.

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