Mastering Performance Conversations with Highly Sensitive People

You might not have heard of the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ before, but I’m willing to bet it conjures up a face or two. According to Dr Elaine Aron, who coined the phrase back in the 1990s, nearly 20% of us fall within this bracket1. Which means most offices have at least one hypersensitive person.

Creative, with a high attention to detail that often equates to exceptional performance, highly sensitive people can be incredibly useful. At the other end of the scale are less productive behaviours, traits many leaders struggle to manage – especially when it comes to feedback and performance conversations.

Highly sensitive people

Hypersensitive people are especially receptive to social, emotional and physical stimuli. This group typically become overwhelmed during busy periods, don’t respond well to sudden changes, worry excessively and display emotional behaviours less sensitive people may consider extreme. These reactions make addressing shortfalls in performance problematic, which is why leaders must learn how to deliver constructive feedback to hypersensitive individuals.

Acknowledge Social Bias

The reactions of highly sensitive people are often considered inappropriate in the modern workplace. Excessive displays of emotion can be viewed negatively, while a tendency to become flustered under pressure, avoidance of stressful situations and an inability to cope with changing demands are often viewed as incompetencies.

When preparing for a discussion with a hypersensitive person, acknowledge your bias towards their behaviour. Does their emotional reaction make you uncomfortable? Are you exasperated by particular reactions? Hypersensitives are very aware of body language and tone, understanding your response and staying objective is essential for keeping any conversation on track and avoiding misunderstandings.

Adopt Agile Performance Management

Frequent readers will know, I’m a big advocate of Agile Performance Management (APM). Regular feedback means this system delivers tangible benefits to productivity and engagement.

For highly sensitive people, it also offers a raft of other advantages. These guys actively avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable, and an annual performance review could mean weeks of stress and worry.

Adopting Agile Performance Management

By meeting regularly for informal one-to-ones, leaders create a less intimidating environment. Setting goals and keeping the conversation forward-focused puts less emphasis on feedback that could be construed as criticism and reduces the chance of an overly emotional or defensive reaction.

Plan Ahead

Potentially inflammatory conversations with highly sensitive people can be avoided with forward planning. Schedule any meeting well in advance. This allows you to reduce the threat of the situation as much as possible and gives a sensitive individual the chance to prepare (a valuable coping mechanism for many hypersensitives).

Avoid Confrontation

Highly sensitive individuals have strong emotional reactions2 and can become defensive when criticised (or when faced with perceived criticism)3. Using empathy in your statements and speaking in a low voice can go a long way to avoiding confrontation4. Remember, a feedback conversation is not a trial. Don’t go over evidence or allow for counter arguments. Simply state the feedback relating to a specific expectation and focus on strategies for success in the future.

Take Control of the Conversation

Every performance discussion should focus on moving forward and the necessary actions needed to achieve success. For highly sensitive people, who are typically very invested in their work, this reduces the threat of criticism and keeps them motivated.

If you find yourself drawn into a disagreement, then be mindful of your reactions. Hypersensitives are quick to pick up on body language. Listen calmly, keep your voice low and avoid ambiguous language, or statements that can be misinterpreted, as much as you can. If you can’t get a highly sensitive person to agree to your feedback, get their agreement on the outcome and future goals instead.

Keeping calm

To sum up…

While managing hypersensitive people often requires more thought and consideration from leaders, it is important to note that these individuals should always be held to the same standards as their colleagues. Failing to address performance issues for fear of causing a scene or upsetting one individual will have a negative impact on engagement and productivity throughout their team.

A highly sensitive person who is unable to meet expectations or consistently performs poorly must be managed appropriately, and should not remain in a position they are unsuitable for purely because they are hypersensitive.

What are your experiences with hypersensitivity in the workplace? I’d love to hear your thoughts on managing this unique group.


1Ramsay, 2014. Highly sensitive people in the workplace: from shame to fame. HRZone
2Lawrence, 2013. Are you a highly sensitive person. HRZone.
3Aron, 2007. A meditation for HSP on criticism: the killer. Elaine Aron.
4Thibodeaux, Not dated. How to deal with an overly sensitive person in the workplace. Small Business.

What if one-on-ones were like an episode of The Voice?

What is a one-on-one? It’s a conversation between a leader and team member to discuss performance. Where the person is going well and what needs improvement. These meetings should take place often (monthly is a good start) and should be in a neutral space or where the employee feels comfortable. These conversation gems can unearth problems you weren’t previously aware of that may be inhibiting a persons’s ability to do their job effectively (both at work and outside of work).

Regular one-on-ones aren’t a virtual magic wand and won’t fix every problem – but conducting these regularly can help you become aware as a leader of a person’s ability to do their job.

So why aren’t they done? Many organisations simply do not do them as they aren’t aware how beneficial they are, or more likely, managers just don’t know how to do them.

The TV show ‘The Voice’ is very popular. The judges are constantly providing one-on-one coaching and advice to improve performance. They do it well.  Some of these coaching tips won’t convert to the workplace though. Take a look at this very light-hearted video comparing one-on-ones to ‘The Voice’.

Jon Windust is a Partner at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.