A Brief Spotlight on Shyness

In my sessions about temperament and its role in the workplace and team dynamics, I usually include an exercise that teases out the assumptions and myths people believe about introversion and extroversion. It goes fairly predictably- folks will ascribe traits like “outgoing,” “loud,” and (once) “insecure” to extroverts, while introversion will invite the terms “quiet,” “smarter” (more than once), and “shy.” It’s this last one I want to focus on today, with the help of Cafe Quill. They’ve developed an outstanding set of infographics to help demystify shyness and to help shy people overcome it in service of workplace success.

First, a declaration: introversion and shyness are not necessarily one and the same. The difference? Shyness is grounded in an “embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, or shame” around social interactions or time in the spotlight. Introversion, by comparison, is an understanding or recognition that these sorts of situations will be draining or tiring to undertake. One is grounded in discomfort and perhaps fear; the other is grounded in energy usage and expenditure.

common signs of shyness infographic

Common Signs of Shyness, Per Quill

The challenge in distinguishing the two is likely based on the idea that someone that appears “nonparticipatory” in a conversation or social situation could be introverted or shy or both- but absent an explanation, it’s easy to make assumptions. As Sophia Dembling says in The Introvert’s Way, 

One of the risks of being quiet is that other people can fill your silence with their own interpretations. You’re bored. You’re depressed. You’re shy. You’re judgmental. You have nothing to say. […] Nature abhors a vacuum, and when other people can’t read us, they write their own story- not always one that we would choose or that’s true to who we are.

Another key difference between shyness and introversion: there are strategies available to lessen or overcome shyness, while introversion is a more innate and immutable trait. While it is possible to practice draining skills so they eventually take less energy, the natural inclination will likely always be to use solo time to recharge from overstimulating encounters or events.

How to Manage Workplace Shyness

One thing I often like to share with people: practices I prescribe to level the playing field between introverts and extroverts aren’t designed to elevate one group at the expense of another; these tips will be helpful to multiple groups for different reasons. With that tidbit shared, I’d like to point out that several tips shared for overcoming shyness are also helpful for managing introversion in a highly stimulating environment.

For example, preparing in advance is a tip I often give to introverted students or staff members ahead of situations where they’re concerned they’ll be drained when trying to contribute. Feeling grounded by arming yourself with information will help the shy lessen their anxiety about a coming meeting or presentation, while the introverted will have to expend less energy getting the thoughts from their brains to their mouths, hands, or fingertips (depending on what they’re heading into).

Another effective tip: shifting focus outward. Both the shy and the introverted expend a lot of energy concerned with how they’re perceived by more outgoing or extroverted (which also should not be conflated, by the way) colleagues or peers. In truth, most of us are too concerned about what’s going on with ourselves to notice what others are doing. By listening intently and asking insightful questions as needed, the shy can introduce themselves into a conversation organically and with authority, buoyed by their knowledge on a topic. Introverts can also benefit from this organic entry to discussion, monitoring how it affects the dynamic of the group and contributing accordingly.

Finally, I want to address a few common tips for engaging the shy or introverted colleague or classmate in your midst.

How to Make a Shy Employee Feel More Comfortable Infographic

How to Make a Shy Employee Feel More Comfortable

Here again, more than one of these tips can be helpful to both introverts and shy individuals for different reasons. Case in point: I am a tremendous advocate of offering multiple avenues for communication. The option to share thoughts and questions via virtual suggestion box, email, written note, or later one-on-one conversation is beneficial for the shy, who may be too anxious or embarrassed to speak up in an emotionally charged or contentious meeting. Comparatively, an introvert may not be afraid to contribute in such a space, but may need more time and the option of asynchronous communication to frame their thought coherently. Offering the opportunity to add to a conversation in multiple ways can change the way decisions are informed and eventually made.

And a final point that this chart brings up: respect the boundaries of the introverted and shy people around you. Yes, they may operate differently from what is often perceived as the norm. But there isn’t something inherently problematic about either orientation. Shyness is something that can be overcome when an individual is ready- prodding them to do so ahead of that point can be ineffective at best, and damaging at worst. Introversion can be managed and navigated, even at times adapted to, but not fixed. Allow shy and introverted folks to articulate – in their own time and their own way – how they work or learn, and then do what you can to support them. As you push them to test these boundaries (which, in the context of a strong relationship, can be needed at times!), be understanding of the moments when they may not be ready or able to push beyond their comfort zone- but be at the ready to help and encourage them when they do make admitted leaps.

Thanks so much to Kara and the team at Cafe Quill for the use of these infographics- check them out for more tips on work, life, and everything in between.