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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How to Manage a Shy Employee

Most of us, by the time we’ve been in the working world for a couple of years, have been taught how to deal with the variety of different temperaments and personalities we encounter around the office. We’re encouraged to respect each type, communicate with them as they wish to be communicated with, and honor their unique contributions to our work environment.

But think about most career advice you’ve heard: Does it emphasize patience and soft-spokenness, or does it urge you to take risks and “put yourself out there”? More often than not, we’re told the key to success is being assertive and bold—which comes most easily to naturally outgoing employees. The shy or timid, on the other hand—which account for as much as 40% of American adults—may be labeled as unmotivated or uninvolved, or are simply overlooked altogether.

The thing is, shy employees have equally good ideas, are just as smart and tenacious, and are just as dedicated as their chatty counterparts. They’re just more comfortable flying under the radar. But while outspoken team members tend to get noticed more, shy employees have an untapped power to help teams succeed.

If you find yourself managing an employee who’s on the shy side, you’ll want to find ways to draw out his or her personal strengths. Yes, employees with a shy disposition may be uncomfortable in certain social circumstances, but they display their strengths in other ways. For instance, research shows quiet employees tend to be more reflective, which enhances creative thinking and decision-making. Their self-awareness in social situations means they listen attentively and are masters at reading facial expressions, making them a perfect fit for human or social service-oriented jobs.

So if your team needs a good dose of humble, measured competence, it’s time to start giving some attention to the people who aren’t asking for it. Here are five ways you, as a manager, can help shy workers realize their potential and contribute great things to the team.

1. Invest Time in a Relationship

Shy employees likely won’t be the first to volunteer feedback or to speak their mind, so try setting up regular one-on-one meetings with them, which will allow you to build closer relationships. The private environment will foster an atmosphere of safety and trust, which can set your employee at ease and help him or her open up.

In your conversations, encourage your employees to articulate what they believe their strengths are, what type of work they enjoy doing, and areas in which they’d like to improve.

Keep in mind: Empathetic, non-critical communication is key when trying to connect with shy employees. So, for example, if your employee shares that cross-company group work gives him anxiety, validate his experience by responding with something like, “I completely understand how you feel. Speaking your mind in front of people you don’t work every day isn’t easy.”

2. Understand Why They’re Shy

As part of your one-on-ones, also strive to understand why your shy employees are apprehensive of certain social situations. For example, does a higher-up intimidate them because they’re not sure how to spark conversation with someone in such a lofty position? Or do they feel self-conscious about speaking in front of large groups out of fear of criticism?

Through consistent communication, you will not only encourage your employees to feel at ease around you (which will help them open up even more), but you’ll discover ways you can help them overcome their discomfort in these social situations—like training them in public speaking skills or helping them practice networking in low-key coffees with other colleagues.

3. Play to Their Strengths

Research shows that social situations can trigger anxiety in the brains of shy people, handicapping the areas associated with problem solving, language, and memory—especially when it’s in response to unfamiliar information or people.

In order to maximize your shy employees’ creative thinking capabilities, make sure shy employees can prepare, practice, and plan. This means meetings should have clear agendas with responsibilities outlined for each team member, and if those employees are asked to lead a big meeting or make a presentation, offer to lend your time to help them practice before the final “show.”

4. Opt for A-Synchronous Communication

Shy employees tend to prefer email, IM, texting, and other forms of communication that allow them to work quietly and avoid the social pressure they’d feel if they had to produce a spontaneous, in-person response. Your office probably already has these tools, so use them! Chances are you’ll get a more well-thought-out response than you would if you approached them unexpectedly and asked them a question point-blank, without giving them a chance to prepare an answer.

5. At the End of the Day, Respect Their Boundaries

Soft-spoken people tend to have stronger, stricter boundaries. They are often not comfortable presenting in front of large groups or making tough phone calls to share bad news with a client or boss.

But even though you want to encourage them to get out of their comfort zone, you don’t want to push them further than they’re ready for. You’ll know you’ve crossed a line if the person deviates from his or her usual emotional baseline—either making efforts to become further isolated or getting flustered, upset, and maybe even crying. When this happens, it’s better to take a step back and respect someone’s wishes rather than risk losing a solid employee.

Follow these steps, and you’ll be on your way to creating a mutually beneficial relationship with the employees who often get overlooked—but could actually be your biggest assets.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.