Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2009.
I. “What can you suggest for HSPs who are managers?For me, this aspect of my job is the most stressing, and my worst fear is…staff meetings…in which one…of my staff will rapid-fire questions at me and I can’t respond….some employees (and they are a VERY small group of people) …perceive weakness when I can’t respond to their come backs quickly…. Luckily I have a very inclusive, collaborative management style to which 99.9999% of people respond to well…but there is always that one person who sees the boss as someone to be challenged…and attacked. Being an HSP of course makes it ideal for that kind of person to behave inappropriately.”
Before turning to “the one person who sees the boss as someone to be challenged,” consider some delaying tricks that all HSPs need, ones that you can use for those moments in meetings when people are throwing questions at you faster than you can respond. Remember, your strength is that you reflect before acting–or answering. Take pride in your insisting that you want to think it over before answering rapid-fire questions. Role model reflecting–and politeness. Even if they are points of fact, you can say, “Let me supply you with those details later,” or “I’d like to check to be sure I give you the best answer on that.” Otherwise, you can simply say, “Let me get back to you after I have thought it over more–I want to give you the best answer I can.”
If you know you have to respond in that meeting in order to stay respected or keep the initiative, buy some time by asking others their opinion or saying you will come back to that particular issue later in the meeting. Then do some thinking while someone else is talking about something you already understand.
Sometimes You Are Just Dealing with a Non-HSP
HSPs often complain about their difficulty being managers. Usually they describe having trouble being “hard on people”: giving criticism, insisting on a certain level of performance, and possibly having to let someone go. But this is related to the problem you describe, since in both cases the issue is how to respond to the high “volume” of non-HSPs. They communicate with the intensity and bluntness that would be required to get their attention, but that is much more volume than is needed to get your attention. (A hint will usually do for an HSP.) In this case, you do not like to receive rapid-fire questions, and you would not question others in that style. But, as you say, a manager must meet these challenges in order to be taken seriously.
That you have to work on being dominant and staying there actually has its bright side, of course. You find it a problem because HSPs are by nature cooperators, not aggressors. In the terms of my new book, The Undervalued Self (not available until next spring), we can say that HSPs prefer “linking” over “ranking.” Linking refers to connecting with others–being close, kind, or cooperative. Ranking involves noting often where we are in a hierarchy, trying to rise in it, and enjoying the power (influence) that results from a high rank. Both ranking and linking are natural to everyone, but most people, especially HSPs, feel better when linking rather than turning things into a competition or focusing on power. In the workplace, they like cooperating and collaborating. This is why your style works so well for everyone.
Fortunately, since non-HSPs are generally as fond of linking as you are, they are happy to do what you prefer–in this case communicate with less volume. Feel free to ask them to lower the volume–but of course do it carefully. For example, say that you enjoy a, b, and c about them, but for you it would work better if in meetings they kept in reserve some of their high energy and brilliant questions, as this would help to keep everyone’s “mental temperature” at a lower setting. “We all can get excited. I do. But when I get very excited about an idea or questions I want answered, I’m liable to roll right over all of the rest of you and miss what else is going on.”
Ranking, Linking, and Power in the Service of Love
Although ranking is natural in social groups, especially at work, most of the time, the power that comes with high rank is used in the service of love–of linking, caring, wanting others to thrive. That is, when people are given the power to manage, teach, parent, or govern, they usually try to use it for the good of others in some way, even if they themselves benefit as well. Indeed, if a leader does not serve his or her followers, the followers generally stop following.
When power is used without any concern for those it affects, it becomes abusive. You would think everyone would favor linking and use the power they have in the service of others. Pure ranking and cutthroat competition does not feel good. Only one person can be the best. The others have either to accept defeat or constantly plan how to take over the top spot. Even in games and sports, being a good sport–linking with your opponents–is essential for having fun. Again, this is part of why you have chosen to manage in a linking, collaborative way. As you say, 99.99% respond much better to this.
Still, you have noticed that some people do insist on focusing on ranking, or can’t help it. So if you are the boss, they have to try to outperform you, make you look bad publicly to reduce your influence, or run you down behind your back. People focused on ranking can also feel hopeless about competing, a problem because they do not perform up their abilities because they undervalue themselves, fearing they will make a mistake or express an idea others will disagree with. But that’s another problem. What they have in common is that they have often been victims in the past, so they tend to feel victimized even when there’s no reason. In their eye you may have already snubbed or shamed them so that consciously or unconsciously they are seeking revenge in one way or another.
Above all, the constant rankers are easily put on the defensive–for example, blaming someone else or trying to make themselves look blameless before blaming is even an issue. So in these meetings they may be trying to protect their status by trying to look super bright with their questions and make others, like you, look dumb. Their philosophy, again not always conscious, is that “the best defense is a good offense.” All of this makes you feel that you have to be careful with them all the time. You are the Boss to them and nothing else. To handle these sorts, first you need to have some idea of why they are doing it.
The Roots of Relentless Ranking
Mostly those fixated on ranking are deeply afraid of defeat and shame. Usually they have suffered humiliating defeats while growing up. In their family, a high rank or a ruthless attitude was encouraged. And in general, when parental power is not in the service of love, it feels abusive and the child feels ashamed and defeated. School can also be a ruthless ranking environment if no one is enforcing fairness or encouraging linking.
The risk of shameful defeats does not end in adulthood. Some workplaces are not very different from seventh grade except that everyone is being more polite on the surface and skilled at subterfuge. Many companies deliberately encourage competitiveness, thinking this enhances performance. (It certainly can drive out some of their best employees, the HSPs.) You know these companies by their warrior language: “We’ve got to win this client,” “I just made a killing.” “Don’t let the enemy get our secrets,” Who’s “rising to the top?” “Never stop fighting,” etc. Many people learn to focus on ranking while working in these really rather scary environments.
In general, we are talking about people who have experienced being abused by another’s power, so this can also include those who have been hurt by any kind of prejudice against them (women and minorities, including HSPs) and have not had a chance to recover from that. Whatever the historical cause, the earlier, longer, and more intensely they were exposed to situations in which unfair or abusive ranking occurred, the more the impact. You may not be able to know someone’s history or even do much about it if you do know, but you can appreciate how hard it could be for them to change and that your own difficulty with them is not due to some flaw in yourself.
What About the Normal Jerk?
Some people have bad manners, of course, or have an attitude about being collaborative–often that it is not “masculine.” In that case you may be able to hold a discussion or a series of them to get the issue out in the open. Then there are people who are fond of intense competition for a higher rank because of their innate temperament, which gives them a need for the excitement of the risk that goes with standing up to the boss or taking over a meeting, but basically they respect your integrity. It could be that your quiet style just leaves them in the mood to shake things up a little. Sometimes it helps to discuss it with them. “I love how you take risks and speak up, regardless of what others may think, but I wonder if you realize how uncomfortable you can make people when you put them on the spot by…?” Often they will have had no idea. They have assumed, as we all tend to do, that others are just like them, and perform best when the stimulation is high.
Since theirs is another “extreme” yet basically normal trait, like high sensitivity, you cannot ask them to change very much. Rather, use their trait. Give them more excitement and challenge. If you can enjoy a little debate, they will love it and usually not hold a grudge if you stand your ground.
So you will have to make a distinction between “loud” non-HSPs, those with bad manners or an attitude, those with an innate tendency to be impulsive and take risks, and those who have been damaged. These last, whose power focus is abusive or constant, are harder to deal with.
Handling the Determined Rankers
I am not a manager, so some of my ideas may not fit your situation, but I have learned some ways to handle your nemeses.
- Have clear rules for everyone about fairness, kindness, the valuing of differences, and the unacceptability of bullying. Anti-bullying policies are now enforced in many large companies, and you can learn about these by Googling “anti-bullying workplace.”
- Be consistently firm, so that they respect you. But try to avoid arguments.
- Linking will soften some, but not all. Try to link with them in small ways that will not make you seem weak, or as if you feel that you have to placate them or pander to them. Defend and support them when you honestly can. But bear in mind that some will see even the most heartfelt linking as some clever ranking strategy.
- Give them jobs they are good at and praise them often if, again, it does not simply feed their sense of superiority over you.
- Try not to do anything to make them more paranoid than they are, or that touches off a feeling of having been humiliated. As much as you would like to, do not complain about them to others (except when it is truly confidential and professional to do so).
- Above all, you may need to get them off your team. One person like this can destroy a group as well as your position in it. Trying to fire them can be tricky, as they may sue, but you can help them find “the right match.” That is, a boss who may handle them better.
Above all, don’t let them make you feel weak due to your high sensitivity. HSPs make wonderful managers partly because, even while they promote linking, they can be good at perceiving subtle challenges and staying on top. About 20% of rhesus monkeys are also highly sensitive, and when raised by skillful mothers, they become the leaders of their troops. So being a leader is right where you as an HSP ought to be. We just have to maintain our natural ranking instincts.
It’s difficult to face the fact that ranking is always going on, especially in the work place, but in fact it has to be that way. So your followers are always watching, consciously or not, for how well you are meeting their needs and responding to challenges that could hurt them as well as you. Again, most people are more productive and happier working in an environment where ranking is minimized, and you are meeting their needs the most when you are handling the ranking aspect of work skillfully.