Recently, Muse career expert Melody Wilding talked about how to manage shy employees—which got me thinking about the flip side: What about when the boss is shy?
It seems like a contradiction. Managers are supposed to be authoritative, bold leaders. And shy people tend to hold back, avoid social situations, and be more reserved in conversation. Can shy leaders truly be effective?
As a shy manager myself, I’ll be the first to admit: You’ll definitely face some challenges. Management didn’t exactly come naturally to me. To be successful, I had to consciously work on my leadership skills on a daily basis.
Now, I won’t toot my own horn (I’m shy, remember?), but from the feedback I’ve gotten from both my boss and my employees, I can say that I’ve learned how to be an effective, fair, and authoritative manager. I’m certainly not perfect—but I’m proof that it can be done.
If you’re on the management path but think your shy personality is limiting you, here are a few of the biggest challenges I’ve faced—and how I pushed through to become a better leader.
Challenge #1: Getting to Know Your Team
This seems like such a simple concept. You introduce yourself to them, they introduce themselves to you, and you’re good to go.
But for a shy leader, this can actually be a painful process. I remember my first day as a manager in the corporate world. My boss walked me through the department, rushing through a dozen quick introductions in the sea of cubicles, and then left me alone in my own cube. And I sat there paralyzed, not sure what to do next. I didn’t know how to un-awkwardly break the ice with my team.
Get Through It
If you’re not a natural schmoozer, get to know your team on your own terms. I found it easiest to set up individual one-on-ones with my direct reports, so I didn’t have to have drive-by conversations in the middle of the floor, full of small talk and in clear view of everyone else in the department.
By setting up the meetings in advance, both my employees and I had the chance to prepare. I emailed out an agenda of what I wanted to cover (including their background, what they were currently responsible for, and their career goals), so we’d have set topics to talk about. Then, I used a skill that does come naturally to me: listening. And as I got to know each of my employees more and more, I found it increasingly easier to interact with them on a daily basis.
Challenge #2: Having Tough Conversations
If you thought it was tough getting to know your employees on a basic level, imagine the terror you’ll feel when you need to have conversations with them to address sub-par work—or worse, to let them go from the company.
These kinds of conversations don’t come easily to most managers in general, but for shy bosses, they can be absolutely unnerving.
Get Through It
Confrontation may never become easy for you, but it helps to have a mentor or boss who can guide you through these conversations until you feel confident initiating them on your own.
In my first management job, I had a boss who was an incredible asset in my development as a leader. When I mentioned an underperforming direct report to him, he explained how he’d go about confronting the employee—what he’d say, how he’d say it, and how he’d follow up. Then, after I had the conversation, he called me back in his office to debrief. He guided me through situations from confronting an staffer about consistently coming in late to my first time firing someone.
It was empowering not only to have his advice as I entered the conversations, but knowing that he cared enough about my success to invest that time in coaching me. And eventually, those conversations with my employees became easier.
Challenge #3: Speaking Up with Authority
There will be times you need to confront an individual employee about a particular issue, but the rest of the time, you need to be a boss—plain and simple. You have to lead meetings, assign projects, set goals, and encourage your team to meet those benchmarks. And for a timid personality, simply speaking to your team with boldness and authority can be a daunting task.
Get Through It
There’s no quick fix for this, but for me, it came down to a two-part solution.
The first was simply getting comfortable with my team. This started with the regular one-on-ones I mentioned earlier, and as I got to know my employees individually, I found I could address them as a whole with confidence.
Second, preparation is key. I quickly learned that my team questioned everything, as most employees in any company probably do. If I announced a new policy in a meeting, they wanted to know why it was implemented. If I set a goal, they wanted to know why it was so lofty and what I was going to do to enable them to accomplish it. If I assigned a new project, they wanted to know what it was, who it would impact, and why it was so important. If I didn’t have answers to those questions, my authority was immediately shot down. But, by equipping myself with the necessary information from the start, I felt more secure in my ability to be bold and assertive.
Challenge #4: Dealing With All of the Above (and More)
Struggling through each day and forcing yourself out of your comfort zone doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a dream job. So when it comes down to it, is facing these challenges worth it?
Get Through It
Yes, it will be painful at first. I struggled for a long time, and had quite a few face-palm moments after slipup moments and conversations that didn’t go as planned. I wondered if I was management material or if I should give up and move back down the ladder.
But if you want to be a leader, I say stick with it. Because the good news is, it gets easier. Once you know your team of employees and feel comfortable around them, you’ll find you feel more empowered to lead them. Tough conversations will get easier. You’ll be able to confidently coach and train your team.
The path to some of the most rewarding things in life are painful and scary—but that makes it so much more fulfilling when you reach the point where you can look back and see how far you’ve come.