How to Effectively Lead Highly Sensitive People

The administrative team of an assisted living facility debated for an hour about how to respond to a surveyor’s quality-of-care concerns.  The manager said, “Emma, you haven’t said anything.  What do you think?”

Surprising to many, Emma offered excellent suggestions which the team quickly supported. 

Afterwards, the manager said to Emma, “I really appreciate your suggestions.  I wish you had offered them earlier.”

“I am very shy and I get nervous when speaking in a group,” Emma replied.

When describing Emma, team members used phrases like, “quiet,” “passive,” “avoids conflict,” “fragile,” “emotional” and “stressed.”  Melody Wilding, writing in the Harvard Business Review, would likely describe Emma as a highly sensitive person (HSP); one who takes all information seriously and is in tune with subtleties that most overlook.

Wilding says that HSPs make up about twenty percent of the workforce, and they can best be managed by clear communications and structure—specific assignments, suggested formats, deadlines, to-do lists, scheduled status reports, “heads up” about upcoming changes, 1:1 discussions, and written rather than oral reporting.

Leaders who treat HSPs as weak and shallow miss the benefit of their insights.  By contrast, HSPs add considerable value to teams led by leaders who understand them. 

How Elon Musk Detects Job Candidates Who Lie

“During the interview, I specifically asked the candidate if he had experience with the advanced features of Microsoft Excel; and he responded, ‘Yes, I used Excel a lot in a previous job.’”

The person was hired; and as you might expect, he proved to be a big disappointment.  When asked about his interview, he responded, “I knew Excel skills were needed for the job, and I thought I would be able to learn them quickly.”

According to a survey by, seventy-two percent of job applicants admit to lying on their resume by exaggerating years of education, experiences, and job skills.

Elon Musk attempts to detect falsehoods by asking applicants to explain the most difficult problems they have worked on and how they solved them.  Musk believes that candidates who make false claims will not be convincing as he listens for specifics and details.

Other studies support Musk’s reasoning.  Lying applicants tend to gloss over details for two reasons:  they do not know the details and they fear someone might follow up to check their accuracy.  Conversely, truth-telling candidates relish the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities by explaining the fine points of their problem-solving experiences.

A Leadership Skill that Few People Have

“For weeks, I have been frustrated,” explained Jamison. “I wanted to provide a new data-sharing service to our clients, but I could not get my colleagues to agree. I researched the service, polled our clients, and fully informed myself.  I still could not get support.” 

Eventually, Jamison asked Bridgette to lead the project.  Bridgette, formed a small task force of colleagues and clients, and asked them to evaluate the value of the data-sharing service.  After a few meetings, Bridgette gain strong support and introduced the service.

Why did Bridgette succeed when Jamison did not?  Jamison operated as an independent expert.  Bridgette’s approach mirrored the suggestions in Heidi K. Gardner’s article on collaboration in Success Magazine.   

Collaboration is simply working together with others to achieve a result. 

Collaborators embrace divergent ideas and learn from them.  Experts attack weaknesses in opposing views.    

Collaborators seek options; experts come to the table with a solution.

Collaborators acknowledge and appreciate their network of colleagues.  Experts disengage non supporters.

Collaborators openly share data on goals, action items, and status updates.  Experts play it closer to the vest. 

Gardner claims that collaboration is the Number 1 desirable skill for success and few people have it. 

Increase Your Influence by Making it Easy to Comply

“I know I agree to do too many things for others they really should be doing for themselves,” Annette admitted.  “It is hard for me to say ‘no’ and I obligate myself to more tasks than I can perform.”

When attempting to influence others, as reported by Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters in Psychology today, two principles of human behavior emerge.  One, when given options, we chose the easiest path to meeting our needs. Two, many feel guilty when refusing a request. 

When attempting to influence work peers, make it as easy as possible for them to respond.  For complicated requests, appeal in small bites; and only ask for what you really need.  Seek involvement of the other party with questions: “How should I handle this?” Make the request in person.  Email requests are easier to ignore.

To avoid guilt associated with denying a request, consider responding with questions.  “What are you trying to achieve?” “Have you checked with ____?”  “What would happen if you skipped this step?” Offer another easier option for achieving the mission.

In short, make it easy for others to do what you want and hard for them to do what you dislike.

Don’t Let the Whiners Win

“My problem,” explained a manager, “is two of my good performers have dug in their heels against a proposed new service for our customers.  Focus groups have suggested the service would add unique value to our product offerings and the financial risks are minimal.”

“Have you visited one-on-one with the two individuals to answer their questions and persuade them to get on board?” I asked.

“Yes, several times.  Every time I provide a good answer to their concerns, they bring up another issue.  It is very frustrating. They whine loudly and publicly, and I fear they may turn others against the project.”

“So, you want to know how to deal with the two whiners?” I asked.


“My response is ‘Don’t try.’”

For most changes, you can expect prolonged whining from ten to fifteen percent of the members of a team.  Efforts to persuade the resisters seldom succeed; in fact, influence attempts will likely motivate whiners to continue.

Many team members will understand and support well-thought-out changes, but they may not be verbal in their support.  Effective leaders reduce resistance and increase support by paying more attention to members who are on board while offering scant attention to whiners’ push back. 

Additional Training Does Not Fix a “Talent Void”

“They could do it if they really wanted to,” is a common expression of managers who are frustrated with a weak performer.

However, haphazard performance more likely represents a talent void and not a paucity of desire.

I often ask workshop participants to list examples of basic job tasks—responding to inquiries, recording expenditures, coding for compliance, and the like.  Then I ask, “Do you recall an experience with a team member who could not reliably perform a simple task after being fully trained?” 

Participants quickly list numerous examples of performance failures. “Why do you think they failed to perform?” I ask.  Seldom do I hear, “They were incapable of learning the skill.”

From early childhood, must of us have heard, “In this country, you can be anything you want to be.”  And we hear numerous inspirational stories of elongated struggles resulting in dramatic accomplishments by seemingly ordinary people.    

However, the hard reality is that even the most basic tasks in the workplace require some level of talent—inborn abilities—for skill development.  Inability to perform after reasonable training and experience is evidence of lack of talent and not lack of will.  Job redesign, transfer or termination may be the answer; continued training is not.

How to Combat the “Great Resignation”

“I like my job,” a high performing contributor said to me, “but I’m getting very attractive offers from other companies.”

“Are you considering taking a position with another company?” I asked.

“I’m torn.  Another company has offered to pay me 15% more than I am currently making along with a nice signing bonus.  But my company has been very supportive and I get along well with my manager.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes.  The other company allows me to work remotely two days a week.  My current company requires me to work onsite full-time.  During the pandemic, we did work remotely.  My feelings about it are mixed.”

In the months following the pandemic, a record number of employees quit their jobs, causing the writers to label the era “The Great Resignation.”

Job quits caused many companies to increase salaries and adopt hybrid work schedules.  When studying individual companies, however, some had quit rates that resembled mass exoduses while quits at other companies were a trickle. 

Michael Beer, writing in a Harvard Business Review op-ed identifies company culture as the key for retaining contributors.  Leaders who are transparent, accessible and promote employee growth and development have much better retention records.  This, by the way, has been true for decades.