One in five people can be classified as a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP).  HSPs serve an evolutionary purpose, and can make some of the most outstanding leaders.  They are deep thinkers who see things from multiple angles, pick up on subtle differences that could make or break a project and sense what makes people “tick.”   Yes, they are empathetic.  No, they do not always cry, act frazzled or even appear sensitive.  In fact, HSPs are surely lurking amongst you, and don’t even know that they would be considered a “HIghly Sensitive Person.”  Yet, understanding this trait and seeing it in yourself or others can be life changing.

A Highly Sensitive Person, as defined in the research, is someone who possesses a Depth of Processing, Emotional Receptivity & Empathy as well as Sensitivity to subtle stimuli.  They can become over aroused and over-stimulated.  

The DOES analogy was created by Elaine Aron, a pioneer in this field, to help us understand the trait.  It describes the four components that make an HSP unique.  These include:

  • Depth of Processing: HSP’s process information more deeply, and compare current experiences (consciously or not) to past experiences with similar cues. They often project into the future and have deep, rich inner lives.
  • Over-Arousal & Overstimulation: HSPs are more easily over-stimulated compared to non HSPs.
  • Emotional Reactivity & Empathy: HSPs have strong emotions and deep empathy.
  • Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli: HSPs notice the little things, and respond to even subtle shifts in their environment. They typically notice their 5 senses more than non HSPs.

The HSP trait is the result of biological differences.  HSPs’ dopamine response is different from non-HSPs, their mirror neurons are more active, and they experience more vivid emotion.  Their nervous systems operate differently, with brains that are wired to notice and interpret other people and the environment more deeply.  

Great leaders pay attention, and notice subtle shifts in their teammates, clients and work environments.  They have critical eyes, and are able to discern new ways of working and being.  They are strategic, creative and empathetic – all things that come naturally to the balanced, self-aware, supported HSP.  

Unfortunately, society does not often welcome HSPs, nor do they create conditions that will help HSPs use their gifts.  Typically in the West, we go from meeting to meeting, with lots of “work” to do, people to see, and experiences to partake in.  We have often been taught to “hide” our emotions, keep our heads down, and work hard.  

As a society, we do need some workers who will keep their heads down and work hard. But, we also need people who see the big picture and sense subtle shifts that can be made to enhance the success of their teammates, work, organization and world.  We need people who pay attention to their teammates and see them deeply: someone who notices when others seem a bit off or extra engaged.  With that knowledge, we can then help our teammates feel understood and supported.  We can even consider making shifts to give them more of what they need that will lead to extra engagement.  These things will result in a stronger, more connected workforce.  Turnover will go down, and productivity will go up. 

HSPs are wired to be the person to point out these subtleties.  They are wired to deeply process and make meaning of the strategies your organization is exploring.  They naturally think deeply about the ethics of the strategy, including who it impacts.  They connect that strategy to past experiences in deep and meaningful ways – they are wired to do that.  So, let them. 

But first you must find them.  Remember, this is not just about being emotional. Yes, those who feel great joy and sorrow may be your HSPs.  But those that mask their emotions (even from themselves) may also be your HSPs.  So, look for them.  They are lurking in your workforces, thinking deeply and sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stimuli, ideas, workflow and people they encounter.  Yet, when given proper balance, they can be using that stimuli, idea and depth of processing to achieve great things!

Want to learn more?  Study this trait, and seek to understand how to find HSPs among you.  You can explore a list of behaviors and even take a self test on Elaine Arons website here.  Why not educate your workforce about this trait, and ask them to take the self test as well?  You may just find that some of your most high potential leaders are lurking right in front of you, able to make your organization thrive, if given the right opportunity and some understanding and support along the way! 

Author: Renee Kosiarek ( is a leadership expert, having designed and taught dozens of leadership and creativity courses at DePaul University, North Central College, and Aurora University. She has served as the director for several graduate leadership programs and is currently the Track Champion for Leadership within the Masters of Arts in Applied Professional Studies program at DePaul University.  Renee has coached hundreds of individuals and has been trained by some of the world’s leading experts on leadership and empowerment.  Her book, The New Leader: Harnessing the Power of Creativity to Produce Change, was published by Business Expert Press in 2016.