How Highly Sensitive People Can Be an Asset to Associations

September 27, 2022 By: Mark Bennett, CAE

Highly sensitive people have traits that make them strong leaders and staff members. From being strategic thinkers to more deeply processing information, HSPs can help associations solve problems and develop a stronger value proposition.

As a child, did you find yourself sensitive to noise like sirens and thunder? In your current role, do you feel equal parts energized and drained—or even more drained—after your association’s convention than other members of your team? Do you find it difficult to concentrate when surrounded by multiple stimuli, such as a TV program and music, playing in the background at the same time? Are you more emotionally moved than others by a fine meal, beautiful artwork, or stirring music? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be a highly sensitive person (HSP).

While there is no shortage of personality tests given to professionals throughout their careers, most of these tests focus on introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, or processing information through sensing/intuition. One overlooked personality trait is an individual’s level of sensitivity. Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron was the first to extensively study and coin the term “highly sensitive person”. She found that 15 to 20 percent of the general population are HSPs, and while most are introverted, about 30 percent of HSPs are extroverts. Aron found HSPs may have the following traits:

  • They need to withdraw to a quiet, darkened room after a hectic day of work.
  • They tend to form deeper bonds with people.
  • They find little value in small talk.
  • They are overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, and coarse fabrics.
  • They seek deeper meaning and purpose.
  • They feel rattled when there’s a lot to do in a short amount of time.
  • They are problem solvers.
  • They have a stronger sensitivity to both criticism and conflict.
  • They are deliberate in the way they make decisions.
  • They have a rich and complex inner life.
  • They are more aware of subtleties than the average person.

Advantages of HSPs as Leaders

Every profession and industry has challenges that boards and staff leaders need to address. HSPs are strategic thinkers at their core. They can look at a complex issue from all facets, processing large amounts of information before formulating a response and developing strategies to tackle these challenges.

Aron points out most enduring cultures have used two classes of individuals to govern: the warrior-kings and the advisors who balance them. She categorizes the advisors as a more thoughtful group who often check the impulses of the warrior-kings. These advisors, who are often HSPs, tend to think about all the possible effects of an idea before acting or making a recommendation. Translated to the association community, the advisor role can be fulfilled by the staff liaison (whether it be the CEO or department director) to balance the impulses of a board, committee, or task force.

HSPs are also moved by significant purpose. This suits them well to lead organizations. When creating initiatives and strategies as well as leading groups, they seek meaningful benefit and avoid the superficial when developing value propositions and outcomes.

Leveraging HSPs as Staff Members

While there are many challenges for HSPs in the workplace, especially at an association where they may have to work in a group or manage large, crowded tradeshows over several days, there are many advantages and highly sought traits they have which can benefit the association world. For example, an HSP’s brain processes information and thinks about it more deeply, looking for patterns and connections.

When managing HSPs, remember that after association events (especially where they may have significant face-to-face interaction with members for extended amounts of time), they will need adequate time for recovery. Also make sure to seek their input from meetings. They may notice subtle things that others did not. For example, maybe they observed someone’s reaction to an idea or the body language of someone while a particular subject was discussed. Or they may have a unique take on a concept that was discussed.

Whether they work within an association as a staff leader or support staff, HSPs can bring a wealth of benefit to an organization, as long as there’s an understanding of how to construct an optimal working environment for them.

Mark Bennett, CAE

Mark Bennett, IOM, CAE, is CEO and founder of Bennett Association Management, an association management company based in Columbus, Ohio.