Kathleen M. Wong
In our culture, the workplace tends to reward charismatic go-getters who network their way to the top. The shy people who struggle to make small talk in the break room or chime in during hectic brainstorm meetings can feel overshadowed by others or not taken seriously.
Research conducted by Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader, found four out of five introverts believe that their extroverted counterparts are more likely to be promoted in the workplace. And a 2019 study led by the University of Toronto did find some truth to that: Researchers found extroversion had a “small, persistent advantage in the workplace” overall and a distinct advantage in key areas, such as interpersonal relations.
It isn’t just that work can be frustrating because you’re a shy person. It’s frustrating to feel as if you aren’t fit to succeed in your profession. But being who you are naturally doesn’t have to be a hindrance in the workplace.
Office life when you’re truly shy
Being a shy person might make you feel like you aren’t “meant” to be in a certain career path or that some careers are better suited to someone with a dominant personality, such as a lawyer or paralegal, according to Shannon Mack, a certified life coach based in Chicago.
“I believe that shyness can be seen as a weakness because it can indicate low self-esteem and confidence,” Mack says. “Nowadays, people are so outspoken that not speaking is … weird.”
As people have become more aware of key personality types, traits such as shyness are often intertwined with introverted personalities, but the two are not the same. According to Heather Gray, a former clinical social worker who now works as a success coach for business owners, being introverted means you get your energy from being alone, while being shy means that while you can still get energy from others, you fear negative judgment for your words or actions, making it difficult to connect and feel comfortable with new people.
While introverts have their own challenges in the workplace—such as dealing with the emotional and physical toll of eight hours of small talk and interacting with others—being very shy can bring on a host of problems. Shyness can make mountains out of tasks such as making cold calls, giving presentations, or participating in roundtable discussions. Often, shy employees will actively avoid certain aspects of their job—such as brainstorming out loud during a meeting—out of fear or dread. And that can be detrimental to career advancement, as many workplaces aren’t set up to positively work with shyness.
“Workplaces can underestimate shy employees by assuming that because they aren’t talking, they have nothing to contribute,” Gray says. “They just hold their traditional meetings, expect people to jump in, and not really consider there might be a different way.”
Even how your office environment is designed can pose obstacles for shy employees. Open seating plans that emphasize community can make shy people feel uncomfortable and less productive, Gray adds. A possible solution might be putting up plants or shelves to create more privacy in an office environment and help a shy worker focus better.
While you shouldn’t radically change your personality just to become more accepted at work, learning skills and tricks to overcome some of your shyness can help you better reach your career goals and step out of your comfort zone. And practice helps, too.
Identify the triggers
The first step is to pinpoint the causes of your shyness, Mack says. The next time you feel yourself shutting down, she suggests asking yourself what exactly it is that you fear in this moment and what other feelings arise.
Working out these triggers can help you start figuring out how to navigate tricky workplace situations. For example, if you notice you clam up during staff meetings, your shyness may be due to a lack of self-confidence or a lack of experience speaking confidently in front of others. Joining Toastmasters to learn public speaking or other leadership or networking groups can bolster that confidence over time.
For dealing with the problem here and now, shy workers can rely on short-term “tricks.” For example, what you visualize about the moment before it happens has a lot to do with overcoming a lack of self-confidence. “I’d tell them not to go in anticipating a Carrie scene or foreshadowing embarrassment,” Mack says. “If they have the luxury of knowing the topic in advance, then they can practice what they’ll say and perfect it ahead of time, which will hopefully prevent them from freezing or stuttering when they’re put on the spot.”
Start with a “hello”
If you’re intimidated by joining a new group conversation, start slow. Allow yourself time to acclimate to the group. “I’ve told clients before, you don’t have to be the first to speak,” Mack says. “Observe your crowd and get to know them that way at first. The caveat [is], you have to actually be present and step into their circle!”
Talking to your coworkers—or anyone new for that matter—doesn’t have to be a full-on conversation about your hopes and fears. Start with a simple hello and a smile. The more open you are to a conversation, the more comfortable and confident you’ll start to feel. And there are ways to participate in a conversation without forcing yourself to open up—ask others questions to keep conversation flowing without feeling pressured to come up with something to say.
For coworkers you see regularly, building rapport gradually can be effective. However, networking doesn’t always allow for such slow and steady progressions of interactions. To network effectively, you may need to network differently. According to Gray, the easiest way to deal with anxiety provoked by networking is to focus on small-group networking events, such as asking someone to lunch for some one-on-one time, participating in a networking online forum, or seeking out a mentor with whom you can build a comfortable relationship. It’s not about changing who you are but finding what works for you.
However, for some, networking in big groups is a part of the job. Gray suggests the shy person ask herself how she can best set herself up for success in an uncomfortable but necessary networking situation. This might be starting with email introductions to those in your industry or finding ways to communicate and network online as a way to bolster your professional contacts. “At the end of the day, every job comes with things we don’t want to do. Giving energy to how much we don’t want to do it only creates mountains we later have to climb,” Gray says.
If networking with a room of strangers at a mixing event or meet-up is something you want to get better at, consider practicing some opening lines with a friend or inviting someone along to support you but who can also give you some space as the night goes on.
Don’t forget your strengths
It’s easy to beat yourself up for being unable to speak up or take charge in the workplace. Instead, focus on your strengths and how they can help you overcome those weaknesses, Mack says. Separate your weaknesses from your strengths. “For example, the shy person who is great at critical thinking should go in that brainstorming meeting knowing that although they may have a hard time expressing themselves in groups, their ideas are great and may be useful [even if they have to find an alternative way to express them],” she says.
Most of all, don’t forget that while you may not be as chatty around the water cooler as some of your colleagues, it doesn’t mean your professional contributions are any less valuable. Building a reputation as a good worker will lead to professional success, regardless of your ability to generate small talk.