How I turn my shyness into strength at work

Shyness is an important part of who I am.

In talking to people for my recent book, Shrinking Violets, I discovered that shyness is something that a lot of people experience in different ways. But it’s often not talked about or it’s mistaken for timidity and fear—especially in the workplace.

A lot of workplaces today value dialogue and collaboration. These environments can be hard for shy people because we tend to work better on our own or one-on-one.

All workplaces should acknowledge that people are different. And we should never try to be someone who we’re not. But there are things everyone can do to turn their shyness into strengths.

Embrace structure

One of the things shy people find hardest is social ambiguity or spontaneous social situations. Work, with its clear protocols, gives us structure. It’s actually quite liberating for shy people because you can interact with people by doing your job well and being professional.

Choose a career that values solitary work

A small part of my job as a lecturer at a university involves working with other people, but a lot of what I do, like preparing lectures, seminars, and electronic materials, is solitary. I like these tasks because I like working on my own.

Be aware of social cues

The thing I like least about being shy is that it can sometimes make other people feel uncomfortable. For me, shyness is often about guessing wrong about social codes or not quite understanding social etiquette. I’ve tried to fight my shyness by becoming more accepting of the need for those kinds of social codes, and to be at least competent enough in them that it doesn’t upset or embarrass others.

Prepare in advance

On the occasions when I do have to speak up, I find it helpful to rehearse things. For example, if you have to go to a meeting, it’s helpful to have something prepared that you can say. Shy people are surprisingly good at public speaking because it gives us a structure and allows us to plan our words ahead of time.

Try a different communication technique

Some shy people like creating separation or structure in their communications. For example, there are a lot of shy people in listening professions, such as counseling, that provide one-on-one work in which the participants take turns talking.

Other techniques create a barrier between people. Working with computers, as Steve Wozniak did at Apple, allows a shy person to communicate in a way that is once removed from others. Similarly, the radio personality Garrison Keeler always talks about how radio can be liberating for a shy person because is both very intimate but also distant. Keeler said he liked doing radio because he didn’t have to worry about people looking at their watches or yawning.

Don’t try to fight shyness

Shyness is not just something we can shake off. It’s a resilient part of our personalities. Partly because shyness itself is so resilient, though, shy people are often very resilient themselves.

The answer to how to succeed as a shy person isn’t to try to defeat shyness. The key is for us all is to understand the role of shyness in our lives and make choices that work best for us.

As told to Kirsten Salyer.

Joe Moran is a Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University and the author of Shrinking Violets.