Article: Friday, 22 December
We all have different levels of sensitivity to visual and social contextual clues, like how much attention we pay to arrows in diagrams or to someone nodding in approval. Everyone perceives them differently, and it’s a natural inclination. Employers can use these innate sensitivities to tailor decision-making strategies for creative ideas, and that could be important for business because it results in more effective and efficient decision-making, and creates a more inclusive social environment where everyone can flourish. These are the findings from research done by PhD candidate Qi Zhang at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Qi Zhang will defend her doctoral thesis: Making sense of sensitivity in the workplace: Coping with contextual information in innovation and social networks on 7 December 2023.
“My research, in describing the characteristics of highly sensitive individuals and the potential challenges they may face in certain network positions, can help organisations create more inclusive work environments. Practitioners can use this knowledge to support employee performance, well-being and foster a sense of belonging, potentially reducing turnover and increasing job satisfaction,” she explained.
Her dissertation takes an information-processing approach to the neurobiological trait of individuals’ sensitivity to contextual clues. It explores how this sensitivity affects the way people make decisions about creative ideas, and the way they handle social networks.
Her research covered two areas: how individuals forecast the potential of creative ideas, and how individuals develop and use their social networks under the constraints of their innate sensitivity.
Her experiments tested people’s evaluations of the potential of creative ideas in advertising campaigns. Qi Zhang’s findings demonstrate that people with high levels of sensitivity are better suited to using intuitive methods for forecasting how a target audience may accept a creative idea. They tended to forecast more accurately using their intuition because they process an overwhelming amount of emotional and social information, so intuitive methods are more effective for them. Individuals with lower sensitivity levels benefitted from a more analytical approach, often employing criteria.
Looking after ‘the broker’ She then looked at people who naturally assume the position of ‘broker’ in social networks – highly sensitive individuals are more likely to befriend people who are not friends with each other, despite any detrimental effect to their individual performance. Qi Zhang used whole network data from two different cohorts and observed that highly sensitive individuals are more easily lured to brokerage positions in social networks when they hold a heightened awareness of communal cues in organisational settings. She says that this discovery – that these sensitive individuals who feel that it’s important that they create a network of people who don’t know each other – need to be mindful of their relational
strategies and the potential trade-offs involved. Organisations who have these kinds of open and communal people among their employees may need tailored guidance and intervention in the workplace.
Other research in the past has investigated factors that affect the accuracy of creative forecasting – like organisational roles and experiences – but Qi Zhang’s focus on the role of innate sensitivity and the use of intuitive versus analytical decision-making methods in forecasting is a new perspective. It demonstrates that people should choose a method that suits the way they innately process information.
And her exploration of individuals' sensitivity level and its influence on their vulnerability to network positions like the brokerage position is also new for the field of social networks research.
“My work also underscores the role of communal mindsets in shaping network structures. This has significant implications for organisations, showing how to manage and guide employees based on their relational inclinations and innate sensitivity levels, an area of research that has seen limited attention.”
Qi Zheng says that as a highly sensitive person who collaborates with people of varying sensitivity levels, she had noticed a common theme in existing research on sensory processing sensitivity. “This theme predominantly casts sensitivity as a potential risk factor for mental health concerns, yet there has been relatively little exploration of how this unique trait can be harnessed as an asset in the workplace. Recognising both its potential and challenges, my aim is to empower professionals with insights on how to not just cope with, but actively leverage their sensitivity for personal and career growth.”
Qi Zheng biography Qi Zhang was born in Gaomi, mainland China, in 1989. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Applied Psychology from the Southwest University in Chongqing, China, and her Master’s degree in Applied Social Psychology (Mention très bien, Accompagement de l’Innovation et du Changement Organisationnel) from the Université Paris Nanterre and Université Lumière Lyon 2 in France. She acquired the title of ‘psychologue’ and worked in France as a consultant in innovation management. She started her trajectory as a PhD candidate at RSM in 2017.
Qi Zhang was born in Gaomi, mainland China, in 1989. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Applied Psychology from the Southwest University in Chongqing, China, and her Master’s degree in Applied Social Psychology (Mention très bien, Accompagement de l’Innovation et du Changement Organisationnel) from the Université Paris Nanterre and Université Lumière Lyon 2 in France. She acquired the title of ‘psychologue’ and worked in France as a consultant in innovation management. She started her trajectory as a PhD candidate at RSM in 2017.
Qi’s research investigates how individuals cope with complex information in the workplace. She examines the impact of individual factors on information processing and related key work outcomes (e.g., creative forecasting, social networks, and tacit knowledge acquisition). She takes an interdisciplinary approach to addressing important issues in the fields of organisational theory and behaviour. She specialises in experimental and survey methods but also draws on new techniques, including implicit measures and neuroscientific tools. Her work has been published in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings 2021 and invited for revision and resubmission in the Academy of Management Journal. She is a finalist for the award of best paper of practical implications for organisations in the Managerial and Organizational Cognition Division at the Academy of Management 2023. Qi is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Organization at Rennes School of Business, France.
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