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

Posts this week will include some reprints of older posts that I still love. This post was originally published on August 24, 2010.

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.

{ 20 comments… read them below }

  1. The IT Manager*

    This is not a knock on anyone as I am shy myself. I do believe that you can be a good manager if you are shy; however, I do not think a shy person can be a good leader. Those traits particular to leadership seem to require someone more extroverted and better able to make those connections to motivate and inspire.

    1. JT*

      Oh, that’s the subject of a lot of study, and I don’t think what you suggest is true. Supposedly the current US President is an introvert, as was Abraham Lincoln.

      1. Amouse*

        Just to pile on :-) : There was a whole debate a few weeks ago on extrovert vs. introvert and whether that’s even related to shyness in the post: “do people have to say hi in the hallways at work?”

      2. Jamie*

        It’s important to differentiate being an introvert from being shy. They aren’t the same.

        There have been times in my life where I’ve been shy – but I wouldn’t call myself a shy person. I’m an introvert all day long – there is no escaping that.

        For me that means I’m super uncomfortable at the Christmas party and cook outs when there is mingling, but I’m fine giving a presentation in front of 200 people or having almost any work related conversation.

        They manifest in similar ways, so people tend to confuse the two, but the distinction is important because IMO you can work with introversion and still be an excellent manager…shyness needs a different workaround, if it’s profound.

        1. Laura L*

          That’s interesting. I’ve always considered myself shy because I find mingling and making small talk with people i don’t know well to be uncomfortable and nerve wracking. But giving prepared speeches is almost never a problem for me, because I have a chance to practice.

          So, I’m not sure what the difference is, as you describe it. Is the being afraid of small-talk and other reactions what differentiates between the shyness and introversion? (I get the whole energy thing, it’s the manifestations that I don’t get.)

          1. Jamie*

            Susan Cain described it as shyness being afraid of social judgment and that’s about as good a description as any for the way I see it.

            I was shy when I met my in-laws – because I really wanted them to like me and it bothered me very much that they didn’t. (I got over that – being bothered, I mean).

            I don’t have the same thing at the work Christmas party. I’m not concerned about saying or doing the wrong thing, I’m not worried that they won’t like me…I just find it really depleting to try to come up with small talk and figure out how long I have to feign interest in the details of someone’s kids’ soccer team. And it’s weird as this stuff seems so easy for other people, and I’m trying to figure out how to socialize…like it’s like I’m trying to assimilate into another culture where the people are kind of like me…but not really.

            So for me when I’m shy I feel like an insecure little girl and my plain old introversion leaves me feeling awkward – kind of like Jane Goodall if she were totally bored.

    2. Zee*

      I’m shy and an introvert.

      You need to get to know me. I need to get to know you. Then, I can come out of my shell, but even then, I still enjoy the peace and quiet once alone again. As for shy, I am quiet around people I don’t know, and I can become a wallflower pretty quickly. However, if I’m motivated to take a position where I need to become the leader, I can take charge. People will listen and be motivated and inspired.

      It depends on the person. And like someone said below, some of our presidents have been shy and introverted. Abraham Lincoln definitely fits both molds.

    3. Joey*

      I beg to differ. I’ve seen it and I actually think erring on the side of shyness makes you a better leader. From what I’ve seen really outgoing leaders tend to lean on their people skills to get things done. This works a lot of the time, but I’ve seen them frequently “sell” ideas that weren’t supported by facts/data and weren’t really good for the organization. On the other hand shy leaders tend to use facts and data to make their case which isnt as sexy but the ideas tend to be more sound. The downside tends to be the stereotypes: aloof, too good to talk to regular staff, etc. To me this is a much better problem to have than someone who relies on their charm.
      Sure the holy grail is a charming facts/data freak, but that is a needle in a haystack.

  2. not Randy*

    I am fairly shy and introverted myself, and I’m a manager. I have found two solutions for this: getting old (you stop caring so much what others think, seriously, you do), and the faster way, Toastmasters. TM requires you to “work the room” at every meeting. It is not just about giving a speech. Speeches are the easy part. You also are required to participate in speech evaluations, which is just like…guess what, employee evaluations. And at $6 a month, it’s the cheapest training you will find anywhere. Or, you can get old like me.

    1. Laura L*

      Toastmasters, eh? My dad has been trying to get me to join Toastmasters to work on my shyness/uncomfortableness talking to strangers. I’ve been taking improv classes instead, because I thought they’d be more fun, but Toastmasters might be helpful as well.

      Also, I agree on speeches being the easy part. They always have been for me, too.

  3. Kit M.*

    This is in no way helpful to the letter writer, but I wish we could all stop defaulting to the “snob” explanation when dealing with quiet people. It is SO much more likely that someone is shy, or reserved, or socially oblivious than that someone is deliberately snubbing people with silence, but we persist in putting the worst possible interpretation on this very common behavior.

    1. NewReader*

      Applause, applause.
      Thank YOU, Kit M

      It is so easy to go to worst case scenario as a default.

      This helps to ease a difficult situation, HOW?

  4. Kip*

    Introverted managers are the best types anyway.

    I can relate to how people may perceive shyness as being cold or aloof. I remember when I first started my position and there was me, my manager and 2 other coworkers who were standing around. I completely freeze when it comes to social circles so I didn’t say a word and one of my coworkers who was there just blurted out to me, “Are you shy?” Uh, awkward.

    And it certainly is ok to be shy and outgoing in other areas. I once got a job working at the front desk despite being the shy type and it helped me be more outgoing.

  5. NewReader*

    I consider myself an introvert. I can be very talkative, very out going under certian circumstances.
    One of the circumstances I have been able to identify is when my role is defined. Such as “work supervisor” or “treasurer for volunteer group.”
    Having that defined purpose makes it much easier for me. Like you are saying OP, large parties or informal gatherings are exhausting for me.
    As far as having difficulty with important/professional conversations you can do a little check on yourself. Do you see yourself NOW as being able to handle conversations that you could not handle earlier? Do you notice any difference in yourself as you gain more expertise? Do you regularly dodge these conversations OR do you go ahead in spite of your reservations?

    A lot of the decisions we make are based on what hurdles we are willing to jump. Not willing to train a pup means NO pup. Maybe getting a cat would do instead.

  6. Emily*

    Dealing with shyness at work has been a “fake it ’til you make it” exercise for me. Not only do I mentally put a “work hat” on, I kind of imagine that other people can see that I’m wearing the “work hat” as well. That way, it feels like people are looking at and listening to the Associate Chocolate Teapot Marketing Manager instead of Emily, which makes me feel less self-conscious. With practice, those two separate “identities” come closer together and it feels more comfortable and natural.

    1. Bowman*

      “Fake it til you make it” has definitely been the way that I’ve approached this in work. While in general, I’m more out-going and don’t have problems with small-chat, part of my job that involves going to parties hosted by embassies/consulates and showing up at a party alone where I may only know 2-3 people tops was very intimidating at first. It was only through doing it repeatedly and recognizing that this was not the same as showing up at a truly social event where I only know the host. Lots of people find these parties awkward and are just waiting around to talk to the 2 people they know. I don’t think the events will ever feel normal or fun, but they no longer cause me social anxiety.

  7. Kristin D*

    I think it sounds like the poster has the potential to be a terrific manager. In my experience, a lot of bad managers get there because they are extroverted, but this quality does not necessarily make them good managers. Some talk a lot and never listen, or do not have the ability to sense subtle underlying issues. I get the impression that the poster has the ability to do both of those things quite well. I agree that the “hard conversations” might be a challenge, but these are hard for everyone, and become easier with practice. I think the most important thing here to maintain communication at all times, and not avoid issues because of shyness (ie the recent post about the ringing cell phone and the coworker not feeling comfortable about confronting the person).

  8. Alison*

    Oh, yes, shy people can be good managers. What we have to understand is it’s ok if our preference is to be quiet BUT ALSO that we have to overcome it to some degree when being a manager. We have to talk to people. We have to promote our business and evaluate employees. The more you do it the better you will get and the easier it will become.

  9. HadtoComment*

    I’ve read this blog for ages and never commented, but I had to respond to this one.

    I am painfully shy and introverted. I am also good at my job so I ended up in a management position. I have to have the difficult conversations and the all-staff presentations and yes, I have fired people.

    I treat it like an acting job. I get up there and pretend like I’m not incredibly uncomfortable and act like what I imagine the perfect non-shy manager would act like.

    So why don’t I just pretend like I’m not shy all the time? Because it’s exhausting! The weeks where I have to do a lot of that are the weeks that I feel like I’ve been run over.

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