can you be a good manager if you’re shy?

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A reader writes:

I’m shy. Sometimes people misinterpret this as aloofness or snobbery. Being outgoing and making friends with everyone I meet has never been a part of my personality. I just have a hard time making casual conversation (which is necessary for good relationships with coworkers), and I have a hard time in difficult/important professional conversations (which are necessary for good relationships with supervisors, AVPs, and troublesome clients). When it comes to work issues, I have plenty to talk about. When it comes to interacting with our clients it’s also not a big deal–it is strange, but it feels like when I’m at work I put on my work hat. With my “work hat” on, I don’t even stress about the interactions it just happens. But once I’m put into a more relaxed, social situation, I quickly run out of things to say….(at work anyways, with personal friends, this is not an issue).

At the same time, being shy has given me great strengths–I’m a fantastic listener, great attention to detail, I’m very focused, and great at observing other professional/political relationships and seeing where tensions and compromises exist.

What I’m wondering is, do you think that “shy” managers can succeed? To succeed do they need to totally overcome their shyness? Or do you think there is a way that I can work on the weaknesses pointed out above, and emphasize the strengths shyness has given me? I was asked ‘where I want to go within the organization’ after just 6 months of constant praise, and zipping through training that was supposed to take a whole year. I’ve already come a long way here, in my first professional job out of college–although I should add that I’m a late-twenties grad and I had 3 years of part-time experience as a student worker. My supervisor told me that she and her bosses recognize my potential and success, and they want to start molding and mentoring me for either mangement, or a higher technical/professional position, depending on my interests. I’m excited, surprised, and scared!! I’d love to try for management, I’d love to take on the challenege, but I’m concerned that my shyness would interfere with my ability to be successful.

This is a great question.

I don’t think that shyness and being a good manager are mutually exclusive, as long as the shyness isn’t cripplingly strong.

You say that you’re generally comfortable with interaction as long as it’s “work,” but once it’s a social situation, you get more shy. I think that’s workable — although you should be very sensitive to the fact that your employees might interpret your shyness in social situation as aloofness, and you should think about whether you can say/do things to counteract it. But in general, I think most employees care a lot more about whether their manager is fair, effective, and transparent than whether she comes to happy hour.

That’s not to say that forming personal bonds doesn’t help. But I think you’ll find you form personal bonds through the act of working closely with people regardless, even if you never talk about life outside work. And frankly, most people respect their boss more when she keeps a clear boundary up between work and non-work anyway.

The one thing you wrote that potentially worries me is that you have trouble in difficult or important professional conversations. There are a ton of these sorts of conversations as a manager — talking to someone about performance concerns, firing someone, responding to someone’s request for a raise, giving feedback in general, delivering the news that a project hasn’t been approved, and just generally being assertive about various needs. It’s crucial to be able to do these conversations well, and they’re ones that you don’t want to hide behind email for.

However, everyone feels weird when they’re first on the manager side of these conversations. Almost no one feels comfortable with them right off the bat; I think it takes most new managers close to a year to stop feeling weird about them, so you shouldn’t assume that your discomfort at this prospect signals that you’d never be good at it.

But you do want to think really realistically about whether this is something you can see yourself getting comfortable with over time. You might surprise yourself that you’re able to handle these just fine when your “work hat” is on. (Also, it’s worth noting that these types of conversations are all about being effective and getting results, which I suspect is a motivator for you — so maybe seeing them through that lens would help.) However, if you would dread these conversations, put them off, and suck at them when you finally had them — even after practice — management might not be the right direction. Because you do need to have those conversations, and if you put them off, you’ll do your staff a disservice.

I don’t know how successfully you can predict how you’d handle these sorts of conversations until you’re actually in the role, so one possibility would be to ease yourself in slowly, by starting out managing an intern or leading a team on a project, and see how that goes.

It would also be ideal if you were able to find a mentor to talk over these sorts of conversations with — how do you do them, what do they sound like — and even practice them out loud with. And since your managers sound so supportive, it might be worth talking over these issues with them too.

By the way, the strengths you described are very important ones — being perceptive about other people is a huge advantage as a manager. And so is self-awareness, which you clearly have.

P.S. I wouldn’t say that I’m shy per se, but I’m definitely introverted and I’ve found that managing has made me more comfortable talking to strangers and dealing with unfamiliar social situations. Being forced to interview countless strangers and have countless awkward managerial conversations has left me feeling comfortable talking to pretty much anyone about anything at this point, which was not the case a decade ago. So there’s something to be said for just jumping in and forcing yourself to swim, if you don’t think doing so will cause you or your future managees significant pain.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. clobbered

    I have worked for people in the entire personality range, including someone very similar to how the writer describes themselves.

    No, it's not a problem working for a not-a-talker. The one I had more or less only spoke to say "Okay", "I'll take care of it" and most importantly, "I support you", which he did. And that was fine. In fact, in many ways he was my favorite manager.

    It never occured to me to judge a manager from not being talkative in social situations.

  2. Anonymous

    i have to agree with AAM.

    on a similiar note- one thing is being shy and another is being introverted. Shy ppl are quiet because they are scared/nervous, while introverts are quiet not because they are scared, but bc they are more comfortable that way. I work at a major oil & gas company and some of the top executives have taken the myer briggs personality tests, and majority of the managers were classified as introverts. I've seen leaders and managers who don't have casual non-work conversations and it's OK. IMO, as long as you have other interpersonal skills, you should be okay. Like AAM said, you will have to not dread doing the human management side of management, so if you don't dread it, then allow your boss to help you get there.

  3. Cass

    I don't think being shy or introverted is automatically a bad thing for a manager. I think it could help because introverts tend to be more observant(?) which is helpful in a work environment because the manager may notice problems that employees are hesitant to bring up.

    I've worked under two managers (though they weren't my direct supervisor). One is a middle-aged woman, very extroverted, very talkative and loud. She seems to have no problems engaging in conversations with people. The other manager was almost reclusive (slightly older gentleman, not warm and fuzzy but not mean either). He kept to himself and didn't socialize. Though some people thought he was "weird", the general consensus is that he was the better manager than the extroverted woman. He let employees do their work and didn't create arbitrary rules directed at certain people. On the other hand, the woman has favorites, targets people she doesn't like, gossips about employees, etc.

    So I don't think it matters whether a person is talkative or not, introverted or extroverted, etc. As long as you can do the work (managing people), it's all that matters.

    Having to have professional conversations (such as performance evaluations or discussing issues with management) will probably get easier with time. I'm sure firing someone for the first time ever is awkward for everyone, regardless if they are a wallflower or if they are a social butterfly!

  4. Anonymous

    I am so glad you posted about this.

    I am also introverted/ shy and I am so so so glad you wrote this post. I think my quietness (and I would only be perceived as quiet as work because my friends would disagree) has definitely worked aganst me at times. Don't get me wrong I am not rude, but spending half my time at my coworkers desks "catching up" and talking about personal problems etc. is not something that I do.

    I perform all my work tasks well and often produce above and beyond what is required but in my current workplace I do think my "quietness" is holding me back.

    Luckily, I start a new job in a week that is set up completely different from where I am now and I think I will be much more successful there.

  5. Katrina

    What works for me may work for you. I'm not necessarily shy so much as I have to watch my mouth – I tend to be too casual in my conversations.

    When I get into a social situation with clients (or higher ups) I just keep asking questions. That way I don't have to talk much and don't risk sticking my foot in my mouth.

    When they ask me a question, I try to keep my answer very short and end it with another question for them. Such as, "Well, I never did get to try that. Did you like it, or was there something you preferred more?"

    If you can manage it, you'll be able to play to your strength – listening ;)

  6. Charles

    I agree with AAM's answers, to which I would like to add a couple of specifics if you really want to go into management:

    When in casual conversations, if you are not sure what to say, without getting too personal, try asking the person about herself. People love to tell others about themselves. Maybe inquire about hobbies, etc. Doing this will make you seen less "distant" or "aloof."

    Improve your public speaking skills. Public Speaking is a skill that ALL managers should have anyway; but developing this skill might help with your shyness.

    Another skill that I think ALL managers should have is the ability to run a meeting. Being shy, this might be hard for you to do, but you must. Two critical thing about running a meeting are: keep the meeting to the alloted time frame and keep the conversations in the meeting on track with the agenda. This means that you will have to learn how to be "forceful." i.e., saying things like "that's a great idea, or topic, but we will have to talk about that at a latter time, we need to concentrate on topic A for now."

    While there are many things that make a good manager great; these three things: being able to engage in casual conversations, being able to speak well in public, and being able to run a meeting smoothly are three things that I think will help you with your "shyness" to become a good manager.

    Also, I would like to add – do not hesitate to go for a management position for fear of failure. I am currently NOT a manager, although I was one for a few years. For reasons other than your concerns I decided that management was not really for me (something about being between a rock and a hard place). Although as a trainer I do, and truly enjoy, train-the-trainer roles and mentoring others; but have no desire to go back into management.

    I have never run into anyone during job interviews who expressed my leaving management as a "failure" or even a downside.(AAM would you agree – would you see it as a downside if someone was a manager but is no longer?) So, I say, go for it.

  7. Anonymous

    I'm currently a manager and looking for work specifically OUT of the management role. My performance is great, my team loves me, I even enjoy the day to day work. I have, however, discovered that I am happier in a support role rather than a leadership role…. so that's what I'm currently looking for.

    I don't think going from management to non-management is a negative.

  8. Anonymous

    Foolish article over at WSJ: Rsum Overload? A Shortcut to Spot Best Hires.
    Just goes to prove, HR folks still live in the 19th century can't adapt their thinking to the new millennium.

  9. Ask a Manager

    Charles, I agree that it doesn't look bad if someone used to be a manager but isn't anymore. Two reasons: (1) I like self-awareness, where people are able to say "hey, this isn't really for me." (2) Having managerial experience in their past probably means they have a good understanding of some of the tensions managers have to deal with (i.e., this benefit to person A is trumped by this disadvantage to person B), which is nice.

    Anonymous: Holy crap, that article's ridiculous. I may need to devote a whole post to it.

  10. Rebecca Morehead

    There are many attributes to being a manager. It would appear that the shyness could definitely work in your favor similarly the way people who have disabilities often sharpen their other skills. Listening and letting people know they are heard would be some to enhance.

    Probably explains why you are a coach…hehehe!

  11. Anonymous

    I'm really glad this post was made because I could really relate to this a lot! I have been shy/introverted my entire life, yet I studied management as an undergrad inronically. I found that I didn't fit in at first since everyone else was a lot more outgoing than I was. What I learned is that as long as you are comfortable with who you are as a person, being introverted benefits you just as much and probably even better as opposed to someone who is the opposite. When I look back at all of the managers I've had, the ones who were introverted were the bosses I prefer working for.

  12. Anonymous

    Ha, I could have written this same post 8-10 years ago! I am doing fine as a shy manager if I say so myself. Some of the things I've learned over the years:

    At first I did mistake being social with my staff with being able to manage them; the two things have in fact nothing to do with each other. I spend much less time in social conversations with my staff than I used to, and I think it's actually better because it keeps our boundaries clearer.

    I have found while some people can dominate a conversation or meeting, people do notice the content of what you say, as well as the quantity of things you say. Are your suggestions helpful or not? Are you on topic?

    One of the hardest things for me was to be able to speak up when I disagreed with a position or idea among a group of superiors. But not only does it get easier with time, I have found that it actually makes people respect you – as long as it's not a trivial matter or just being obstructionist (which people also will notice). After all you know your job and may see things they don't. People will also notice your attitude if your idea is overruled.

    Over the years, I have taken on and added to my responsibilities because people saw me as the person who gets things done, is willing to try new things, to solve problems etc. Even though to this day, I am still usually not the most talkative person.

  13. Anonymous

    The one thing that concerns me is the statement that people considure the OP "aloof" or a "snob". This is a killer for management, as this can also be interpreted as "you don't care about me". People will disengage ane not perform if they feel someone doesn't care. It will destroy your effectiveness. There is a huge difference between shy/introverted and caring Vs aloof.

    I've walked this path, and now have (for the most part) dropped the "aloof" tag. Here are my suggestions:

    * Take a Dale Carnegie or similar type of class. It helps to have tools for doing small talk to people.
    * Treat people like a treasure chest, with their personal stories being the treasure. Most people are far more interesting than they appear, but that only comes out when you engage with them.
    * Go to networking events and network. This is putting what you learned into practice, and you do get better with time! It helps to do this with another introverted person so you can commiserate with one another and shore each other up.
    * Take a course in crucial conversations so you can appropriately handle the hard stuff. "Crucial Conversations" by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler is a great book!
    * Schedule down time (quiet time) every day so you can regain energy. This keeps you from getting grumpy.

    The difference between successful Vs unsuccessful people is their soft skills. This is true even in a strongly technical area. Even if you choose the technical track, you will still need the soft skills to influence people and get buy in for your projects.

  14. Anonymous

    The OP sounds like my identical twin. :)

    I started at my first job when I was in my mid-late twenties and was there for about 3 years; I'm generally introverted and terrible at making small talk. And many of the strenghts/weaknesses that the OP listed about herself reflect me too. I'm now at my 2nd job (just passed probation) and this is a management position – I don't manage people (still a long way to go there); I manage projects/products/customer relationships.

    I don't think the OP has much to worry about. Reasonably intelligent coworkers will not equate shyness to snobbery. The important question is: Are you a teamplayer? Do you support your coworkers and try to help them out when they are having difficulties? Do you give them credit (where it's due)? Are you willing to put in extra effort to help bring up the team? If you do – and based on what you wrote, you must be – your coworkers will respect and trust you even if you don't talk about your weekend plans in the kitchen.

    However, one attribute that I think is important if you want to get into a management or senior position is the ability to step out of your comfort zone. You need to be able to handle situations that make you uncomfortable. Start with the little things and it may not be as hard as you think. I used to be so afraid of leaving voice messages but now I'm doing that everyday to people I haven't even spoken to. Start with emails or MSN if you can't do face-to-face conversations yet.

  15. Yas V

    I used to consider myself shy and quiet as a person. As you gain more experience the shyness will go away. Because you will find when carrying out work you're not shy at all quite the opposite. Its just certain situations which may bring this around. If we were to ask you about work, I'm sure you could talk and talk.

    I'm a graduate and didn't leave with the best results. I used to consider myself best when I worked by myself. I have a personal drive to be the best at whatever I do and I think this is what helped get me recognised and gain confidence to carry out other roles.

    Currently and I'm newly promoted but I manage 60 people some of which include other supervisors and managers. I still can't believe I've been shown the trust to carry this out.

    I still do find a few things a little difficult but my experience up until now, I know that I just need a little more practise. This is the case with most aspects.

  16. Anonymous

    I'm an introvert and left my last position in retail due for that reason. The culture at the workplace clearly favored extroverts who would be willing to carry on long conversations with customers. Some of these people, including a co-worker, often made sloppy mistakes with money. I still don't understand why she still has her job.

    I have social skills, but am much more reserved with people I don't know well. I'm polite and friendly and can make small talk, but it doesn't come natural to me. It's a skill I've had to work at finding ways to make small talk with people that you don't have much in common. I can fully understand how some people could easily interpret that reticence as being a snob and aloof.

    Introverts in retail, especially in entry level positions, have it tougher than extroverts. I think I am better judge of character than some of my extrovert co-workers. I can see when people genuinely made a mistake and when they know damn well that they are wrong but won't admit it, but want to scam a store. I'm more inclined to go out of my way to help the people who were honest enough to admit that they made a mistake.

    It's easier to have an introvert personality if your in management because they need to have good observational skills to make good judgment calls. They also seemed to be less influenced by personal friendships in the workplace when making tough decisions.

    I do fine in my office job. I can make pleasant small talk with clients who come in and find it's much easier to deal with people over the phone. It also helps that most of the clients and other people who contact us are reasonable individuals with intelligence and common sense. They also are far more patient and understanding when you're trying to help them resolve an issue, especially if they know you are in the same position as they are waiting for things to be sent to you and then to them.

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