Can You Be Shy and Still Succeed in Business?

A loyal reader writes:

How does a fundamentally shy person succeed in business? Most people don’t percieve me as shy, but I started out being introverted. I get along pretty well with people at work, and I’m fine in one-on-one situations. But I don’t say much at team meetings, and still have no clue how to give effective speeches/presentations. Still can’t be in group situations professionally without feeling attacks of paralyzing gut-level fear. What do you think I can do about it?

I forwarded this question on to an experienced businessperson in my network. Below is his very thoughtful and helpful response that you might forward onto to shy people you know in business.

There is a difference between shy and introverted. Shy means you are uncomfortable interacting with people generally, particularly strangers, whether one-on-one or in a group. Introverted simply means you are more comfortable by yourself or with one other person.

I think it is very possible to be successful in business as an introvert, but shyness will be an obstacle to success. An introvert (to provide a concrete example) might have no trouble closing the sale, as long as it is a meeting with one decision-maker and not a whole team at once. An introvert is often very good at relationship selling. Success in business is not always about being a visible leader – many F1000 CEOs are introverts, and I believe Jim Collins’ work (e.g. Good to Great) shows that introvert CEOs are generally more successful because (among other things) they don’t have the same ego to feed.

However, it *is* necessary to be able to speak in front of larger groups at least sometimes. I think the answer to this is Toastmasters. There, you learn how to do various kinds of public speaking, and you learn how to do it well without being nervous. Like many things, it’s all about getting used to it, and most people do not get the opportunity to speak publicly very often. This does not mean you end up loving it – it will be hard and sap your energy – but it will allow you to do it well enough to complement your generally introverted style of doing business.

Saying your piece in a group setting where you are not the “assigned” speaker is a somewhat different matter. I think the experience of Toastmasters and other public speaking will mitigate the discomfort somewhat, but not entirely. The real problem in this case is a lack of self-confidence. You may be afraid of ridicule, or of being wrong, or of getting into a debate with someone who has a strong personality and a big mouth. The solution consists of two pieces: appropriate filtering and appropriate handling.

Given that you are not inclined to just blurt out what you’re thinking, you should say something in a group meeting only when (a) you are pretty sure you are right, (b) you have something to say that is different than what everyone else is saying (that doesn’t mean you necessarily disagree – it could be additive), (c) what you have to say is important to the discussion. Oh, if only EVERYONE would filter this way, meetings would be a lot shorter. If you filter in this way, people will be less inclined to beat up on you, because they know you only contribute when it’s potentially valuable (they may disagree, but won’t be as harsh). Appropriate handling is how you position your thoughts. First, be explicit about your level of certainty (but don’t understate it just to hedge your bets). Second, don’t try to persuade, just try to explain. This is more objective and less likely to raise anyone’s competitive hackles. Third, as much as possible, position your thoughts as complementary to the preceding discussion rather than in opposition to it. This does not mean you should be Sarah Palin and *ignore* what was said before, and try to make it seem like you’re on the same page when you’re not. It means you should identify the points of common ground before you begin speaking and include them in what you say. Finally, if the bigmouth in the room *does* come back at you, you simply have to have a good response ready. My inclination, which is subtly sarcastic and wouldn’t work for everyone, is something like “why don’t we take it off-line and I can explain my thinking to you better.”

Shyness itself is simply a manifestation of low self-esteem. You can’t cure it by going to Toastmasters or anything else. Therapy, perhaps, can help with this. But you won’t be successful in business if you are shy. You could be successful as a worker bee, but not as a business person. Beyond a certain point of technical knowledge, business is all about dealing with people. We have different preferences with regard to how we deal with people (some people need to be in a group, some prefer one-on-one; some prefer to write and send email, others find it necessary to talk on the phone or in person). But if one is uncomfortable dealing with people, and in many cases in business they *will* be strangers, then I just don’t see how you can make that work. You have to believe that others will get value out of dealing with you – or they won’t.

16 comments on “Can You Be Shy and Still Succeed in Business?
  • This is a beautiful, brief response to a delicate and somewhat complex question. I would like to add a few notes that may or may not be of help to the questioner.

    First, I think everyone in business (check that – everyone in life) should have the following points memorized from the text above:

    “Appropriate handling is how you position your thoughts. First, be explicit about your level of certainty (but don’t understate it just to hedge your bets). Second, don’t try to persuade, just try to explain. This is more objective and less likely to raise anyone’s competitive hackles. Third, as much as possible, position your thoughts as complementary to the preceding discussion rather than in opposition to it.”

    I am going to focus more on the introverted aspect of the author’s response because there is not much more you can add concerning shyness and how to conquer it. I believe it definitely stems from a lack of self-esteem and inexperience in front of people. Have the courage to jump into new, uncomfortable experiences and ride the wave of discomfort.

    I was once a loyal attendee of Toastmasters and I can tell you they are phenomenal. Not only are your traditional speaking skills ameliorated, but also your ability to provide quick wit, reparte, and on your feet thinking is put to test.

    From my observation, introverts are more reflective, fastidious with their words, and many times more effective because people know their opinions and thoughts are well filtered before they are publicized. From this standpoint I think everyone should have introverted characteristics. This is a very powerful characteristic.

    Now your question pertained specifically to business. Remember, business is more than being the “salesy,” smooth talker. There are numerous facets to being successful in business and it is important to maximize/exploit your strengths while simultaneously improving on your weaknesses (only you know what those are).

    I am going to give you two examples from the real world that may provide an ounce of inspiration that makes you more comfortable being naturally introverted (assuming you are). First, some of the best political figures were introverted. The Adams (John and John Quincy) had the reputations of being introverted.

    The following quote is from Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage concerning John Quincy Adams:

    “He had few of the personal characteristics which ordinarily give color and charm to the personality. But there is a fascination and nobility in this picture of a man unbending, narrow and intractable, judging himself more severely than his most bitter enemies judged him, possessing an integrity unsurpassed among the major political figures of our history, and constantly driven onward by his conscious and his deeply felt obligation to be worthy of his parents, their example and their precepts.”

    If you can be an extraordinary politician as an introvert, you can no doubt be an extraordinary business man as an introvert.

    Second example is Michael Corleone. Okay maybe not a real life example but close enough. He didn’t walk into the room and steal the show. He dealt with all his business and family’s business in the back rooms at intimate settings, confined boardrooms, and other settings of similar nature and was very effective.

    My main point is that being shy can be overcome and being an introvert doesn’t mean you are predestined to be a mediocre business man, you just have to play the game differently.


  • Great post. I think the points about shyness apply beyond business. What career or profession *doesn’t* involve debate, meetings, or persuasion when there is disagreement? Very helpful, empowering suggestions.

    About low self-confidence causing shyness — I also agree. Some additional suggestions for those dealing with shyness or “introvert difficulties” in meetings:
    1) work on self-confidence through meditation or other introspective techniques that enable you to determine your own causes for low self-confidence. It’s different for each person, and requires a lot of practice and self-observation, to truly get to the bottom. There is no easy fix!

    2) Practice writing out your thoughts, on the likely key issues, before an important meeting. Practice structuring them so they are clear, with the “key point first, supporting evidence second” – aka, Pyramid Principle style, so you don’t lose your listeners in the first 2-3 sentences.

    3) practice role-playing exercises, with friends or ideally, informed colleagues, where you have someone play antagonistic roles. I tried this with a friend, after I froze with shyness during a group management consulting interview, and it helped a ton, in the follow-up interviews. No interviewer was as tough on me, as my friend had been during our practice sessions!

  • Can extroverts be shy?

    No, I don’t think so, although some people have very different behaviors
    around strangers than they do around those who are familiar. In my
    experience, extroverts who have low self-esteem tend to manifest it by
    trying to be the center of attention and dominating the conversation,
    i.e., simply the opposite of the way shy people behave.

  • In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins addresses the qualities of a successful business leader. He calls it Level 5 leadership. Level 5 leaders can be introverted and don’t have big egos to feed.

    Highly recommend reading Chapter 2 of the book to make your own judgment about shy people being successful in business.

  • Interesting article,

    Introversion and shyness are two very different things. Introversion is preferring solitude, but being able to function fine with others.

    Shyness is quite different. It is anxiety around other people, coupled with not knowing what to say or how to participate in the interaction.

    One can be an introvert and not shy or shy but not an introvert.

    Shyness definitely makes it harder to succeed in business, and just about any other area of life, since so much of what we do in all fields depends on human interaction.

    • Actually, that is not true. An introvert can be shy or not shy. Shyness is different from introversion or extroversion for that matter. The best way to think about shyness is as the opposite of boldness. I also like to think of it as modesty and humbleness. In short, shyness is a personality trait and not an illness. People consistently confuse shyness with introversion or visa versa and social anxiety (which is an illness) with shyness which is simply a personality trait, just as being bold is a personality trait.

      In answer to an earlier question, extroverts can also be shy. I’ve known a few.

      I am, as my handle suggests, both shy (moderately so) and introverted. As a youngster I had mild social anxiety disorder which I slowly overcame through spotty therapy, reading tons of self-help literature, and finally just throwing myself out there. This took nearly 20 years and my journey continues. A person who is shy or introverted will have a tough time rising in the ranks unless they learn and apply extroverted people skills.

      I also want to pint out that poor self-esteem is not a cause of shyness, but can be a result. Scientific studies have been conducted that point to shyness as an inborn trait. If shy people have low self-esteem its from an intolerant society that overvalues bold and extroverted personality types. This wasn’t always the case. I recommend the book Quiet by Susan Cain.

  • Extroverts can most definitely be shy. There is often the misconception, as demonstrated by this posts, that introverts are shy and extroverts are social. In fact, what really determines where someone is on the introvert-extrovert spectrum is where the person draws their energy. An introvert draws energy from time alone and gets drained from too much social stimulation. So, introverts can be very social people, but they’ll need time alone to recharge. Extroverts draw energy from socializing. As such, shyness is much more painful and challenging for extroverts because they need other people to get a boost of energy, but they feel terribly uncomfortable in the very activity they desire so much. For introverts, shyness is still uncomfortable, but less so because of a lesser need for constant social interaction. Low self-esteem is definitely a component of shyness, but having low self-esteem alone does not necessarily mean someone will be shy.

  • Well I am usually shy and I am an introvert. I have recently started my own business in IT services. I do not agree with the author here.

    Firstly, Shyness is a personality trait and like any other personality trait it can be modified by making changes. When I started my business I was shy to market and sell my product and then after some introspection I realized that if I continued to avoid social interactions I was not going to get anywhere. So now when I am at work I don’t let shyness stop me from doing business. It does make me uncomfortable when I have to make cold calls and have to interact with new people everyday. But it is a price I am willing to pay to pursue my passion.

    Secondly, I disagree that shyness is a because of low self esteem. There are many reasons which can cause shyness such as fear of rejection, negative reactions, or simply the unknown, under developed social skills or mental trauma. Low self esteem can be one of the reasons behind shyness but it is not the only one.

    I have started my own blog on my journey as a shy and introvert entrepreneur trying to follow my dreams. You read more about it at my blog.

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