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Why Highly-Sensitive Leaders Often Struggle and How They Can Break Free

The key is better awareness of emotional intelligence--something ALL leaders need.

Sensitivity to others’ needs and a strong capacity for building trusting relationships are increasingly seen as critical attributes for those ascending into positions of leadership. This is why — in today’s shifting business climate — those labeled as “highly sensitive” may possess a high degree of emotional intelligence. This capacity, in turn, may provide them with certain advantages when it comes to building teams and influencing others.

Yet, when these highly-sensitive individuals rise up the latter, their acute sensitivity to the moods and emotional needs of those around them, can actually make their jobs harder. Unlike their more matter-of-fact counterparts, highly-sensitive leaders may find themselves susceptible to increased stress, indecision, and self-doubt. 

The Limits of Self-Awareness

For these leaders, the problem may be that their own self-awareness, while critical, is simply not enough. For them, the key is to develop greater knowledge of their own emotional natures along with greater insight into the multiple components of emotional intelligence.

While these leaders may be adept at managing their own emotions, many seem to stumble when having to confront charged situations involving others. This one indication that they may need help developing stronger boundaries and healthy detachment skills.

Over the years I’ve helped many emotionally-intelligent leaders who are struggling with workplace challenges that involve interpersonal conflict. Support is particularly helpful when leaders are facing conflicts with those who may end up behaving unprofessionally or in a manner that is emotionally volatile.

Expanding the Definition of Emotional Intelligence

These days, most business leaders are familiar with the term “emotional intelligence.” Typically most leaders know that emotional intelligence refers to awareness of one’s own emotions and reaction patterns.

But as Daniel Goleman defines it, emotional intelligence typically extends well beyond mere awareness of one’s self. In his best seller Working with Emotional Intelligence, Goleman  —  the renowned authority on the subject  —  has stated that emotional intelligence has five unique dimensions.

Only three of these dimensions  —  self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation  —  pertain to self. The other two  —  empathy, and social skills  —  focus on interacting with and responding to others.

For leaders everywhere, these latter dimensions are critical for managing others and effectively responding to the inevitable personality conflicts and tensions that come up in organizations.

Expanding the Definition of Leadership

Throughout their careers, many individuals promoted into leadership positions acquire a basic level of competency for effectively working with others.

However, many leaders — whether the matter-of-fact type or highly-sensitive — tend to think of these so-called “soft skills” as secondary to the technical or bureaucratic aspects of their job. This may explain why so leaders seem baffled or become emotionally disengaged when confronting the difficult interpersonal demands that come with their positions.

But, for today’s organizations to be effective, a more astute and engaged approach is a must for all leaders, not just those who consider themselves highly-sensitive.

How Leaders of All Types Can Move Forward

Given the complex challenges today’s leaders face, it is critical that they adopt a broader, more emotionally-attuned understanding of their responsibilities.

Such a definition acknowledges that in today’s organizations all leaders must serve as the primary architect of an organization’s emotional climate. This often means taking on a more active role in creating an effective and harmonious alignment between the organization’s goals and employees’ needs, and feelings.

For some, taking on such responsibilities may not be easy at first. Seeking support or skilled guidance from a trusted coach or mentor can make the process much easier.

As leaders undertake adopt a broader, more emotionally-attuned awareness of their roles, they are likely to find that unexpected benefits come to them and resonate widely throughout the organization.

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