That was it. That was the email. No sign off or, “But I’ll let you know if anything changes.” Just a flat “No.”
I was an entry-level employee a few weeks into my tenure at the organization. I had emailed one of my supervisors to ask some run-of-the-mill question I can’t recall. All I remember is his monosyllabic response and the frantic internal dialogue that I experienced afterward.
Okay, so the answer is “No.” Very direct. Almost curt. But maybe that’s a typical response from him. Maybe he’s the “blunt, one-word email guy” around the office. Is that a thing? That doesn’t seem like a thing. He is busy, though. Maybe “no” was all he could manage to send off at the moment. That’s probably it. Okay, but why do I detect a hint of frustration in there? Did I . . . did I do something wrong? Am I not supposed to email him? Have I violated some unwritten code of office conduct? Should I apologize? No. I’m probably overthinking this. Am I?
This run-away train of thought sped along for longer than I’d care to admit. Eventually, it slowed to a stop, but not before wasting a lot of mental energy and distracting me from my work for an afternoon. And it didn’t get me anywhere: I never figured out if I was onto something. We continued working together without incident, but I avoided emailing him for a long time afterward. Instead, anytime I needed something from him, I resorted to roundabout methods of obtaining it—gingerly poking around among lower level colleagues until I found someone who might be able to help. More often than not, I’d try to figure it out on my own. Yes, it was very silly.
I wish I could tell you this is the only time I’ve fruitlessly agonized over an interaction (or lack thereof) with a superior, but it’s not. From my first part-time job waiting tables at a diner when I was 14, all the way through high school, college, and grad school to my first, second, and third postgraduate positions: my entire working life is littered with miscommunications that have left me confused and distracted in the moment and overly cautious in the future.
Some of this is inevitable—workplace communication is tricky—and a lot of it has to do with me. To call me an overthinker would be an understatement. So, for most of my professional life, I’ve operated under the assumption that miscommunication is just another occupational hazard and one that only I could prevent.
That is until I started grad school and began working for a woman with a slightly unconventional style of leadership.
We were not friends and never became close, but from the outset, I was much more relaxed with her than any of my previous supervisors. Fraught communication stalemates like the one described above never cropped up. This may have had something to do with the fact that, like me, she was young and female—and that she never sent one-word emails—but it was also her approach to leadership, an approach guided by what I can only describe as a keen sensitivity to those working for her.
Typically (and mistakenly), our culture regards sensitivity as a negative character trait, a passive quality that makes us emotionally over-reactive to everyday life. But in reality, sensitivity has its benefits. My boss was highly attuned to her surroundings—and she actively harnessed that faculty to empower the people under her.
She was polite, direct, decisive: everything you’d want in a boss. And like most supervisors I’ve had, she invited me to bring her my questions and concerns. The difference was that she made deliberate efforts to seek out and address any fears, concerns, or confusion that, for whatever reason, I struggled to vocalize—and she was good at it.
What a sensitive boss looks like
Subtlety being a defining characteristic of sensitivity, examples of these efforts are difficult to describe. But a few traits stand out. Often her sensitive approach manifested as seemingly superfluous addenda to regular workplace conversations. She actively avoided miscommunication by couching directives or suggestions in language that prevented misinterpretation. “You’re hitting all of your deadlines, and we have no problems with your performance,” she once told me, “but you work in a noisy part of the office, so feel free to use one of the back rooms if you need to focus.” A more direct boss might simply have said, “Feel free to use one of the back offices if you need to focus,” which could easily be misinterpreted as a subtle critique of one’s performance.
She didn’t wait for scheduled meetings or annual reviews to provide feedback. As a project assistant at the lowest rungs of a research organization, I was constantly tasked with chasing down, compiling, and summarizing information for other people to use. Especially early on in my time at the organization, she went out of her way to let me know if something I submitted was appreciated. In fact, she’d often provide feedback on behalf of other people: “John probably didn’t say anything to you because he’s at a conference,” she once messaged me out of the blue, “but he mentioned that your memo was very useful.”
In addition, she had an uncanny ability to guess at my unspoken fears. Once, after asking me to follow up a second time with another not-particularly-friendly high-level executive, she told me, “If you’re concerned that he’s getting annoyed with you, let him know that I told you to follow up again.” She wasn’t overly-familiar or intrusive. She wasn’t presumptuous or condescending. She was politely attentive to the ways that people can end up feeling dejected, lost, or unappreciated at work.
In turn, I was a better worker. With consistent, specific feedback, I spent less time worrying about whether or not I was meeting everyone’s expectations or upsetting people—and more time working as efficiently as possible. And because she initiated discussions about potential fears, concerns, or questions, I felt more at ease coming to her with them, which meant that I wasted less time needlessly fumbling through things on my own.
Traditional workplace wisdom would dictate that attempting to navigate your employees’ feelings is not part of the job. Feelings are for friends and family—not work relationships. Plus, keeping commands direct and communication minimal is the more efficient route. But this view, in my experience, is too narrow. People have feelings, even at work. Asking them to check them at the door won’t change that. And while direct, minimalist communication may save time in the moment, it can have the unintended consequence of leaving employees confused and anxious. I’ve got news for you: confusion and anxiety are massive time-and-energy-wasters.
I realize there are people for whom this article will make no sense. For some people, when they need feedback or clarification, they ask for it. When their boss is terse, they brush it off. These are habits I’ve spent years seeking to emulate, and I’ve come a long way. But I also have to accept that I’m an overthinker—it’s part of my personality and part of what makes me a good researcher and writer.
There are plenty of others like me; it’s not uncommon to overthink interactions with your boss or spend unnecessary time turning wheels wondering what they really meant or want. Sensitive leadership can help prevent these roadblocks to productivity. So while sensitivity is not usually a quality we look for in leaders, maybe we should start.