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Workplace Sensitivity - 28 January 2016

If you were asked whether, in terms of leadership, it’s important to be overly kind, helpful and understanding, you’d surely respond with an immediate yes. Similarly, if you were asked whether it’s worth being exceedingly friendly, warm and respectful, you’d likely respond with a firm nod. But what if the correct answer is actually it depends…?

That’s the finding of a surprising new study just published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The qualities mentioned in the previous paragraph are grouped into a scholarly category known as leadership sensitivity. Many people (wrongly) assume that leadership sensitivity is vital in every context. The reality, though, is that it isn’t always essential and that, sometimes, it can have the opposite effect. Here’s how that happens.

Every employee has expectations of how they think their leaders should act. When their leaders’ actions are incongruent with those expectations, a number of consequences can ensue such as job dissatisfaction and staff turnover. In the case of sensitivity, employees have expectations of the degree to which their leaders should be sensitive. If their leaders end up being oversensitive or under-sensitive, consequences arise. In the aforementioned study, those consequences were found to include negative emotions and harmful behaviour.

The researchers believe these adverse reactions occur for a number of reasons. For instance, if an employee only desires a little sensitivity but receives a lot, that employee may subsequently feel overwhelmed and distracted from more-important work. Conversely, if an employee desires a lot of sensitivity but only receives a little, he or she feels neglected.

So how can you determine your employees' preferred level of sensitivity? Consider:

- The results of psychometric testing and personality profiling.
- The frequency with which they ask you questions.
- Their body language. Is it open or is it closed?
- Trial and error. Which of your actions work? And which ones don't?
- Approachability. Do your employees make it comfortable to engage them in conversation?
- Psychological safety. If you make it safe for people to tell you the truth, most will honestly reveal the extent to which they need you.

What this research demonstrates is that prior to showering employees with plenty of overt understanding and abundant assistance, it’s probably worth figuring out whether they actually want it. If they don’t, consider backing off. If they do, give it all you’ve got. It’s all about being sensitive to their need for sensitivity.


To download complimentary e-books on employee engagement, retention, and recruitment (valued at over $100), please click here.

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