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.