It has long been considered that being too sensitive is a weakness, often associated with fragility or vulnerability. But what if sensitivity can give us the edge, creating greater self-awareness and improving emotional intelligence? Is it a trait required to be a resilient leader?
We recently interviewed the noted academic in this area, Dr Michael Pluess, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. He has been particularly interested in the new concept of “differential susceptibility” proposed by Jay Belsky, who suggests that people’s development and emotional affect are differentially susceptible to experiences or qualities of the environment. Describing a group that is sensitive to negative experiences but also to positive experiences.
Dr Pluess’s research interest has been centred around “What protects some people from adverse incidences that may, in others, lead to a psychological problem?” He is interested in the protective factors that constitute to peoples wellbeing.
He believes that those most at risk to developing problems in the face of adversity, are the same people who benefit most from positive experiences – as they are more sensitive to both negative and positive experiences.
From an evolutionary point of view, it did not make sense that people would have risk factors that make them more likely to develop problems when facing adversity. Logically, for example, genetic factors increasing the risk of depression should over the course of time, drop out of the gene pool – but the fact that they are in the gene pool, at high frequency suggests that there are benefits as well.
Dr Pluess sees sensitivity as the ability to register and process external stimuli. It is how we see our environment, process it and understand it.
His studies in children have shown that those who are more sensitive are also more affected by positive influences. With parenting, these children require less punishment as they are more sensitive to it and do better than others in positive environments. These traits appear to carry on through adulthood.
So it seems that being sensitive can be a problem but can also be beneficial.
Sensitive people should see the benefits of their trait – understand that others may not see what they see, as they will pick up on things that others do not. Knowing when you need to withdraw to take a break is essential so you need a strong understanding of yourself. Those with a strong sense of self are more practical and confident and naturally inspire others to trust them.
So how does sensitivity fit with resilience?
Resilience is usually a good thing as you are less affected by negative experiences and strong in adversity. It is a good thing to be less sensitive in traumatic experiences. However when things are good, and you are in a supportive environment with plenty of opportunities, being high in sensitivity can be more of an advantage.
Dr Pluess believes that sensitive people make great leaders. He will continue his research to find out how people differ in their responses to positive experiences.
We need to be able to identify those people who would benefit most from particular interventions and provide different support to those who would gain little. This will have massive implications in the training and development field. Imagine being able to better identify individual needs and provide tailored skills and support to help that person perform and excel to their greatest ability!
Listen to our Resilience Unravelled podcast featuring Dr Michael Pluess:
Find out more about Michaels work at http://www.michaelpluess.com/
How sensitive are you? Have a look at Dr Elaine Aron’s website, The Highly Sensitive Person: http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/ and take the short sensitivity test.