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

If you’re shy or introverted but want to move up in your career, you’ll probably have to manage people at some point. Can you be a strong leader and an effective manager despite being shy?

The answer is: It depends. Being quiet or introverted definitely doesn’t preclude you from excelling at management; in fact, you probably bring strengths like introspection and listening skills that can be quite helpful in managing other people. On the other hand, though, if you’re shy to the point of dreading talking to people, that could indeed be a big obstacle to managing well.

And of course, it’s important to point that being shy and introverted aren’t the same thing. Shy people are generally quiet because they’re nervous or anxious (which can indeed pose difficulties as a manager), while introverts are quiet simply because they’re happier that way, and that’s not inherently a weakness for a manager.

Think about how your personal style is likely to play out in the sorts of tasks a manager’s role is filled with: Are you reasonably comfortable interacting with others? Can you confidently lead a meeting? How do you do with difficult or important professional conversations? As a manager, you’ll have lots of tough conversations, like giving critical feedback or discussing performance concerns (or even firing someone), responding to a request for a raise, dealing assertively with difficult personalities, or delivering bad news (like that a project hasn’t been approved or work needs to be redone). It’s pretty crucial to have these sorts of conversations face to face and not give into temptation to have them over email or otherwise dodge them.

You might also think about whether you might need to put extra effort into ensuring that your employees don’t interpret your shyness as aloofness. For example, you might make a particular point of scheduling regular one-on-ones, taking a clear interest in people’s professional development, and actively soliciting people’s input and opinions. Those three things alone can go a long way toward counteracting any initial impressions of aloofness.

And really, in general, most employees care a lot more about whether their manager is clear, direct, fair, and effective than whether she comes to happy hour. That’s not to say that forming personal bonds doesn’t help – but most people form personal bonds through the act of working closely with people, even if they never talk about their lives outside of work.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    FWIW, I think my introversion is a strength in my managerial style. At least, I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. My style is very facilitative – I like to give my team the opportunities to shine and do great things – I set the conditions for them to do well by giving clear guidance/expectations, feedback, etc. But because I don’t like to be out in front, I think it works really well. I do have to be careful that I don’t come across aloof or get too frazzled when I get interrupted a lot.

    1. NortheastNonprofitDirector*

      “I do have to be careful that I don’t come across aloof or get too frazzled when I get interrupted a lot.”
      Yes! Me too.
      I also have to remind myself to ask things like, how was your weekend, etc. which would not normally come to mind for me. My default setting is to get to work and expect everyone else to get to work.

    2. Mookitty*

      Introversion does not equal shy. Shy has fear as a component. Introversion is simply a personality characteristic of not being refueled by social interactions and needing down time to recover personal energy.

      I am tired of being accused of shyness and having my introversion disrespected because I can talk in small groups very well.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I’m not sure if you replied to the right comment – I didn’t equate introversion with shyness :) I’m not shy at all!

  2. Amber Rose*

    I always thought it would be fun/interesting to be a manager. I’m ridiculously shy but there are a multitude of techniques for getting around that, many have worked well for me over the years. And being introverted just means you need better time management.

    That said it’ll probably never happen. C’est la vie.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I like it way more than I ever thought I would! I didn’t see myself in such a role, but I actually really love it.

    2. KJR*

      Can you expand on the time management part? I’m an introvert but great with time management…it’s actually a strength for me.

      1. Chocolate lover*

        Maybe it has to done with having more control over your time and how you spend it? I have good time management skills in terms of getting things done, but that’s separate from/in addition to needing control over how I spend my day and balance it out.

        Example: A big focus of my job is meeting students. I’ll have meetings for a couple hours at a time, but then I need time to decompress and process those appointments, so I can come up with suggestions and advice for those students (we work together in ongoing process.) So I work on projects, and then have more appointments later. Some of my coworkers can meet with students for twice as long without a break, but I would find that exhausting.

      2. Amber Rose*

        Yes, that’s what I mean. Sorry if I was unclear, I meant that being an introvert means you either have developed, or will need to develop, really good time management skills. So you don’t burn out. Being extroverted allows a little more flexibility.

  3. Ad Astra*

    Shy extrovert here. I have a real interest in management, which is why I like AAM so much, but I don’t think I’d succeed in a management role because I have such a hard time initiating uncomfortable conversations.

    1. Oryx*

      I’m an introvert and the only time I’ve been a manager was when I was the librarian at a prison and I hated it. I managed about a dozen inmates who worked in the library and I was fine one on one, or in small groups, so I was great at the training portion, or addressing just the circulation clerks, but some of the other things that Alison address I struggled with. Like leading meetings or having those difficult conversations. The funny thing is, as much as I thought I was doing a horrible job, I know I had the respect of the guys who worked for me and most of the inmates at the prison as a whole so clearly I was doing something right.

      1. Ad Astra*

        Oh yes, I very much prefer to be around people, and I’m a huge Chatty Cathy. But I have a hard time being assertive and I care too much about making people like me.

  4. Muriel Heslop*

    I am a huge extrovert and I really enjoy having introvert managers. They usually have strengths I don’t and can often help me in ways a manager who is more like me wouldn’t be able to.

  5. F.*

    Introvert (not shy) here. INTJ on the Meyer-Briggs scale, if anyone cares. I do not have any direct reports on paper, but find myself managing people quite a bit as an HR Manager. I think my best attribute is my ability to step back, listen and observe. As far as requiring time alone to process and re-energize, finally getting my own office has been a big help. My immediate boss is also an introvert, and our styles complement each other nicely.

  6. Regina*

    Hmm. I would say I’m introverted more than shy, but when it comes to speaking in front of others, forget it. I just can’t do it. If there’s any kind of senior person in the room, I completely freeze up and sweat and lose all my articulation ability. I also hate conflict and any kind of uncomfortable conversations. I truly don’t believe I can ever move up because my anxiety about both these things is so astronomically high.

    The sucky part is, where do you go when you’ve been working for over a decade? The natural step is to move to management, but if you hate everything about it, then what? I am frustrated with myself, given my anxiety is hindering me from greater pay and visibility.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      You could look into being more of a subject matter expert, discussed here recently. Sorry I’m too inept to post links on my phone but I’m sure it would come up in the search.

      1. Regina*

        Yeah, I’ve seen it. I think these are much more likely in tech fields. I’m not quite in one, so I feel like my ceiling will come sooner than those who go into management. And then why would anyone want to keep me, when they could hire someone with a bit less experience for a lot less pay? It’s a struggle to feel worthy/of value to a business.

  7. AcidMeFlux*

    …or maybe we’re all making a bit too much of this “introvert” thing, having been subjected to years of BE AN ASSERTIVE IN-YOUR-FACE SEIZE THE DAY KIND OF PERSON OR BE A TOTAL LOSER (and yes, that is shouting). Maybe we’re just….normal, with varied personality characteristics? I’d like not to define my way of being as a pathology.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Thanks for saying this. I noticed we often talk here of being introvert or extrovert and even task oriented or relationship oriented , but I think most of us don’t fall that neatly one way or the other. A psychiatrist told me many years ago I was a type A-B personality, a combo of my introvert dad and extrovert mom. Big social events make me very anxious and exhausted yet I’m very comfortable speaking in small groups of people. I would find it extremely difficult to have tough management conversations about performance, however, because I’m not very assertive. At work I’d say I’m more task oriented, but at the same time I want people to like me, I just don’t need to be “friends” with my coworkers like others seem to like doing…

  8. Weekday Warrior*

    I’m really happy to see this post and the comments from people interested in being managers. Despite the tough stuff, management can be really rewarding as a way to accomplish larger goals than we can achieve as individuals. The people management can be the worst part of the job, but it is also the best. Not enough people get to see or understand these rewards and far too many people screen themselves out of exploring management because they don’t fit the extrovert image. Whether extroverts or introverts, good managers understand their strengths and weaknesses and learn to balance them out and/or mitigate them. Come on in, the water’s fine! :)

  9. So Very Anonymous*

    See, and I’m a (shy) extrovert and I don’t have much interest in managing (at least, not where I’m currently working) because I don’t want to have to limit my conversations to Always Talking As The Manager. That sounds isolating to me. I have an introvert manager and I think that deliberately not engaging in certain kinds of conversations comes much more naturally to her.

  10. Mimmy*

    Can you be both introverted and shy? I’ve gotten better at speaking up during meetings and have even chaired committee meetings. However, like Regina (posted above), I am deathly afraid of conflict and absolutely hate calling people I don’t know. I’m always reverting to email whenever possible.

    I know I’ll never be management material. If I could be a Subject Matter Expert in some fashion, I would be so happy!

  11. Not So NewReader*

    I read that introverts can make great managers. This is because they have the ability to get a good read on a group or an individual. And they have a tendency to look around for people who might be feeling out of the loop, or might be having difficulty. There are some situations and some types of job where this is the exact personality trait that is necessary.

    I know I am less introverted when my role is defined. Put me in the middle of a party with 50 people I barely know and I start to feel like I am drowning. But I have supervised groups of 50 or more and it has not been a problem at all. Defined role, does make a difference, for me. To introverts who wonder about this, I would say give it time and see how you feel. You find your confidence/knowledge/resourcefulness building about your arena, that might help to sway you.

  12. Alexis*

    While I don’t consider myself shy, I am an introvert. I manage a small group of people and I’ve found that it’s made me a stronger manager. Since I’m 1:1, I’m able to focus on the individual and how to manage based on seeing how things play into the whole picture. Advantageously, I work someplace small, so I feel its easier to share ideas, touch base with everyone as a group or individually. The challenging part, being an introvert, is my job is pretty extroverted, so some days I’m pretty drained whereas an extrovert would be fine.

  13. AcademiaNut*

    I tend to think of roughly five different social interaction measures, which can show up in various combinations.

    Introvert/Extrovert – has to do with energy. An introvert needs quiet/alone time to recharge and can find too much social interaction draining, an extrovert tends to be energized by dealing with people.

    Reticent/Outgoing – how someone presents in a social setting. Do they sit quietly in the background, or are they talkative/life of the party? Someone can love being around people, but prefer to watch and listen to talking.

    Shy/Not Shy – more a matter of self confidence. I see shyness as a low level social anxiety, where someone is nervous in social situations of various sorts.

    Social/Anti-social – Antisocial =/= introvert! Someone who is antisocial really doesn’t *like* people in general all that much.

    Socially adept/awkward – actual skills and perception in social situations. Can someone read social situations and body languages? Are they aware of and can they follow social norms when needed? Do they possess tact?

    For management, an introvert doesn’t necessarily have any problem with the mechanics of managing, but might find jobs that involve a lot of intense dealing with people draining. Too far into reticent *or* outgoing can be a problem – someone who doesn’t communicate at all will have trouble managing, but someone too in your face who doesn’t stop to listen will have difficulties too. Shyness/anxiety can definitely be a problem, but for a lot of people it’s something that can be trained with practice. Antisocial is generally a problem with any job that involves dealing with people, as it’s usually quite clear that they regard you as a nuisance and wish you would go away and leave them alone. Social awkwardness can definitely be a problem when working with people generally, even more so when in a position of power over them.

    1. misspiggy*

      I like this formulation, thank you! Important to note that these characteristics can all change over time, and skills to mitigate the negative aspects of either extreme can be learned.

  14. SL*

    Along the same lines, I’m wondering if someone can ever be a good manager if they’re a loner / rebel. I’m definitely an introvert (and I don’t feel that this in itself causes huge problems with respect to management), but I do feel like the loner aspect of my personality makes management difficult. I like doing my own thing and letting others do their own thing (probably to the point where my employees wonder if I even care what they’re doing). I also tend to give very honest answers when someone questions what the company is doing. If I think we’re doing something stupid, then that’s exactly what I’ll say. It seems like the company wants its management personnel to spout the company line, but I just can’t bring myself to do that when I’m not in agreement with it.

    The company also wants its managers to be “coaches”, and that’s something I have no desire to do. I’ve always been the type of person who wants to be given a task and then have people leave me alone so I can do the work required to produce the expected result. In other words, I don’t want any coaching or anyone looking over my shoulder. In other words, I love working alone (which is probably why I love playing golf – it’s the ultimate individual sport). This is where I feel the rebellious / loner aspect of my personality makes “management” more difficult and stressful for me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That doesn’t sound like you want to manage, to be honest. The things you’re describing here that you don’t want to do are pretty core parts of managing! What pieces of management are you interested in?

      1. SL*

        I like seeing people improve in their core job functions and learn how to do new things. And I have no problem with telling them where I think there might be learning opportunities that would be beneficial to both them and the company. I also don’t mind giving advice about how to handle challenging situations that arise in the workplace (things like dealing with a difficult person in another department). But I absolutely hate dealing with stuff like enforcing corporate policies, keeping up with vacation and sick time, or making sure people are following procedures. To me, these kinds of tasks are thoughtless, boring, and mind-numbing. I didn’t go to engineering school to learn how to keep up with how much sick leave a person has. I’d rather spend my time thinking of ways to grow the company. Maybe the issue is I’m in middle management and not the CEO ;).

  15. SL*

    Didn’t mean to say “in other words” twice there. Probably should have read that more closely before posting.

  16. fred*

    Shy introvert.

    My company tries to push everybody into project management positions. And I keep telling them it’s not going to work. Then they say “Oh, we understand”, and the next day they start pushing again.

  17. Willow*

    I am a natural INTJ. I have found Toastmasters very helpful in gaining leadership skills & would recommend them to any shy person. I wish I had done TM years ago.

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