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

This 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’m not shy, 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.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I lost out on a job for being “too shy.” The position was in middle management at a non-profit. Not quite entry level but not quite a senior role. I came in with strong experience in the content area of the job, but being still new in my career, I did not have as much supervisory/management experience as I might have liked.

    In the rejection email I received, one point struck me in particular. The hiring committee did not think I would have a strong enough backbone to deal with strong personalities in the organization regarding sensitive issues they were going through (I.e. a total org restructuring). I was a bit floored by this response, and I took that to mean that their first impression of me was clouded by my appearamce and personality. I’m petite, and very soft-spoken. It doesn’t help that I look much younger than what I am. I’m understandably nervous in interviews and was trying to be polite and interested, rather than aggressive, which is apparently what they wanted.

    In the end, I’m glad I wasn’t chosen. The fact that they wanted someone aggressive tells me there would have been a lot of internal conflict within the organization. I’m not a big fan of fighting in the workplace. But I don’t think my reserve would be a detriment to management. I’ve always been the type to value kindness and constructive criticism over the “you’ll do what I say” management style that I have dealt with in past jobs.

    1. Sharm*

      Same here. I don’t know why kindness and constructive criticism are anathema to so many people.

      I was promoted to a manager role early in my career — too early, I felt like. I was in the role for 3 years and hated it because of all the drama at my particular organization. And I was never good at dealing with the trouble personalities. With some distance now, people have told me it was a particularly bad situation, and they actually praise how I handled things. But it was really scarring for me.

      I really do think my being reserved and even-tempered holds me back from management. I need a new challenge in work, so I think I’m ready to try again, but I do wonder if it’s for me. The hard part is, I just don’t see how I can move up/earn more/take on more responsibility without going into a manager role, so I think I have to suck it up and go for it at some point.

      1. fposte*

        Though I think the “kindness and constructive criticism are anathema” might be taking it too far in the other direction. I want kindness in all the positions I hire for, but there’s one in particular that I need somebody to be assertive and immediately authoritative in (I would never conceive if it as aggressive, though). Soft-spoken is okay for that position, but retiring isn’t; I need to make sure that if I see the first I’m not going to end up with the second.

    2. AJ*

      Interesting! I had a similar situation, but it was the opposite (if that makes sense): I applied for an HRIS analyst position and they told me I was too outgoing for the job and that I probably wouldn’t like the working conditions since it involves a lot of time in front of the computer and not a lot of social interaction. Granted, I knew that when I applied for the job and I definitely wanted the position and to work for the company anyway (a well known children’s hospital). I thought they were all great people and weren’t trying to pull any tricks, but they honestly believed they were doing me a favor. Perhaps it’s because I came across as too gregarious in the interview with the manager, but I can assure you, I’m pretty quiet socially. It was actually the first time I was recognized as being outgoing which I thought was hilarious.

  2. llamathatducks*

    As a recovering shy person, I find that it’s totally possible to have difficult conversations even when you’re predisposed to dislike them. The trick is to figure out beforehand what you need to say, and then say it. You don’t have to be happy saying it, it doesn’t have to come naturally, you just need to decide that it is the right thing to say.

    For me, what made me realize this was living in a foreign country for a year, speaking a foreign language. When I went anywhere at all, for any interaction in that language, I had to script out the interaction in my head before I got there. (Plus I was teaching, which required lots if this as well.) I also had to just accept that I would feel awkward and make mistakes, but I still needed to go teach my class / talk to a pharmacist / whatever, and so I did it.

    Now that I’m back, I’m still using this technique, and over time it’s made some situations come more naturally, but not all – I still script out any conversations that I don’t regularly have. But it works well! I get done what I need to do and people don’t care or even necessarily know that I’m shy.

    Perhaps you could learn to manage in a similar way as well!

    1. LAI*

      Agreed. The first time I had to give difficult feedback to someone, I spent hours planning for the meeting. I basically wrote out everything I wanted to say, then thought about everything I thought they might say back and how I would respond. It turned out to be completely unnecessary but it made me feel much better going in to the meeting. It also gave me the confidence to say the difficult things because I had really thought about them and decided that they needed to be said. And like Alison says, it was helpful to remember that it was all coming from a place of wanting to help the employee improve and wanting our group to be successful.

  3. Not So NewReader*

    Lots of good points here, OP.
    I love how Alison says that being a manager helped in some ways to extrovert herself. I know supervisory work (larger group) really helped me to speak up more.
    There’s lot of components to what drives the shyness. For me, uncertainty was one and I had a number of things that I was uncertain about. I found a definition of me – who I am and who I am not. The eye opener here was when I was at work, my position/role was defined unlike social situations which can be really hard to read.
    As far as “aggressive”, I would start to think about that by looking at your ideas. Do you support your ideas well enough to present them to skeptics? If a skeptic asks you a question about your idea how do you handle that usually?
    Just a starting point for thinking about this.
    I agree, that you probably dodged a bullet by not getting this position. I am not too sure I would want to “fight” every day, myself. However, some people have a manner that reduces arguing and in-fighting. It could be that you will find at some point that people just do not routinely argue with you. This is an asset/skill. A few years ago a position became open that no one wanted, because of all the bickering. The person who took on the job had NO problem. Why? His demeanor, his approach, his knowledge and his life experiences. People knew they could walk up to him and just have a conversation. His pool of knowledge was such that he could draw out many finer points and nail down solutions. He also had a style of speaking — kind of like what we see Alison do here. It’s not emotional, it’s matter of fact and the tone is that of a person who is explaining or asking questions to collect more information.

    BTW, are you sure you are shy? Maybe you are an introvert? Yeah, I think there is a difference and it might help you to figure out what best describes you. I had to take a look at this and rethink things. I enjoy my down time and always will. I can be outgoing for a short spurt but then I am ready to go home and recharge. I am happier with myself for realizing this.

  4. Nichole*

    I also think OP sounds introverted rather than shy. Realizing I am an introvert and what that means has been unbelievably useful to me. Once I had some of those things in words, I was able to start figuring out how to use it to my advantage. I don’t consider myself shy, but I’m definitely more reserved than most people and a textbook introvert. While I had some trouble getting into ‘Quiet,’ it has been a huge resource in spotting situations that center around the cult of extroversion and deciding whether to avoid or adapt. It also helped me realize that we are legion, and weird quirks like my absolute hatred of the phone aren’t just me. I’m very interested in how the OP sees this situation in retrospect, I hope they stop by.

    1. Cat*

      I don’t know – the hallmark of introversion is finding conversations draining rather than difficult. And I think both introverts and extroverts can have trouble with difficult conversations.

  5. A*

    Culture, culture, culture. There are definitely places where shy and/or introverted folks would not be fast-tracked for advancement. I should know, since I am a shy/introverted person and I worked at a place like that! All of the managers were great, but definitely had that gregarious, always-happy-hour ready attitude about them and anyone who didn’t have that personality type was generally seen as either “not a team player” (in my experience, the #1 euphemism for ‘you’re too shy/quiet/introverted’ though sometimes valid) or someone who was content in their current position, but not looking to advance. So for me, I realized it wasn’t a culture fit and sought employment elsewhere.

    Obviously, this wasn’t a problem for the original LW, but maybe something important to remember. What is vs what should be and all that.

  6. satish*

    I too have gone thru this situation. Managers are required to represent,interact,understand people. I know you are polite,soft spoken,knowledgeable at work. But management looks at how you appear outside?how social you are with everyone?how interactive you are?how bubbly (chatter-box) you are? Having skills only in mind is not enough! Demonstrate it.
    Do you think if you appear shy people (subordinates) will come to discuss their problems? Never!. Even if they come, they wont find confidence in you. Shy people are always considered last in the list.I know some people are shy from childhood.
    But you have to pull your socks and get up. Make friends, chat with them, win them. Read articles about “how to socialize”? Read articles “how to win friends and influence people” Read articles on “qualities of manager”.

    1. A*

      That is one type of manager (the chatter-box, social type) and in many company cultures, that is the only acceptable type of manager that’s seen as acceptable. But there are many types of cultures and many, many types of managers.

      It sounds like you are most comfortable with extroverted AND gregarious managers (which not all extroverts are, just like not all introverts are socially awkward). But that doesn’t mean it is the only type of effective manager and I would even argue that those traits are NOT in the shortlist of what makes a great manager. Like AAM says above, most effective managers are clear, direct, respectful, fair and motivated. The introvert/extrovert, talkative/quiet stuff is more about approach and that can vary really greatly in terms of effectiveness, depending on the company, company culture, and the manager’s own skills. Trust me, I’ve had extremely social managers who were terribly unresponsive, disrespectful, and unmotivated. I’ve had more “aloof” (i.e., shy) managers who were also unresponsive, disrespectful, and unmotivated. But I’ve also had quiet bosses who were fair, respectful, and motivated AND I’ve had social bosses who were the same way.

      The latter two have always been my historical favorites and I don’t really take their social approach into account, except I tend to prefer more introverted bosses because that is how I operate. But I would never say a social boss isn’t well suited for their job just because of my personal preference.

  7. Marie*

    I work for one extroverted and one introverted manager. Their styles are very different, but I find it just as easy to work with either of them, with some small adjustments (e.g. the extrovert will come to me with work, and the introvert will leave me to my own devices unless I come and greet him in the morning. Then he’ll say “oh yes, since you’re here, there’s a matter I need some help with”). The extrovert is generally the deliver-of-news (both good and bad), and tends to give more critical feedback (which is necessary for learning), but the introvert trusts me more and gives me more ownership of the matters I work on (which is also necessary for learning). I wouldn’t call one style better than the other – just different.

  8. George*

    I agree, being shy doesn’t determine is you’re a good manager or not unless it cripples your ability to “straight” talk with people. In my experience managers that were social butterflies they tended to use their role to take advantage of employees and processes. I personally prefer a shy manager to a socially savvy manager.

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