5 Tips for Managing Shy People

man writing in his diary "Dear diary, sorry to bother you again"Update: If YOU are a shy individual and want to get more outgoing, check out this post from Upgrade Reality.

Now that I’ve described the main types of engineers, I’m going to gear some advice in how to work with them.  First on the chopping block is those shy and quiet engineers who don’t need, or even want to get noticed, or even talk to others.  I think that this category is one of the hardest to deal with because by virtue of their nature, they don’t want to talk to you about problems, improvements, questions, etc.

Throughout high-school, I was constantly berated by my classmates behind the backs of our teachers.  I was called many names that I don’t even care to think about to this day, and as a result, I was extremely introverted.  I had a close-knit group of 5-7 friends who I would hang out with in my spare time, but for the most part, I would stay at home with my family and watch TV or play on the computer.  That all changed when I moved out after high-school with my friend Ryan.  He was a jock (baseball player) and therefore had many friends who I had never met and had no interest in meeting.  They would come to our apartment and watch TV, play video games, and go off-roading with the group.  At first, I felt like my friend was being taken away from me, but as time went on, I realized that these people actually CARED What I had to say!  The names never came, and the more I spoke, the more intently I was received.  In fact, some of my best friends now, are those who came from his friend-pool and hung out with me!  I owe my extroverted nature to that experience. I’m not sure who I’d be if it weren’t for the short 9 months living with him.

So here goes (most of this goes for any shy employees, so take them in a broader context) 5 suggestions to expanding a shy engineer’s social experiences and interacting with them:

  1. Actively seek them out to connect.  If their project is something that needs to be taken care of in a timely fashion, make sure you touch bases with them.  If you don’t connect with them on a semi-regular basis, any problems may very well not make it to your attention.
  2. When they do a great job on a project, or merely a task that deserves some kind of pat on the back, make sure you do it.  Many times, shy people tend to be that way by having others fail to recognize their great achievements.  It’s not a far cry from low self-esteem to shyness.  In fact, many times shyness is caused by prior experiences in which a person was belittled in the past.  That being said, not all shyness is self-esteem related, so don’t assume it’s due to low self esteem.
  3. When you need to give recognition, do it quietly.  If someone is averse to social interaction, having their leader inform the rest of their team may (through their outward praise) draw the person more into themselves.  This can lead to resentment of the leader and needing to get out of the awkward social situation they aren’t capable of dealing with.
  4. Incentives are hard to work out.  Most people see outward recognition as a good motivator because they can see that their work is appreciated by many people.  Shy ones, however, may hate these outward displays of their progress, so I suggest you continually talk to them and find out what makes them tick.  Is their family the most important thing in their world?  Perhaps giving them flex time in return for a job well done is a good option.  Obviously, don’t give preferential treatment to them and not the other employees, but you really have to see how your incentives will affect those who don’t follow mainstream motivational practices.
  5. Work with them to push them towards being more social. I don’t mean making them go to social events with the team, but rather, if they have expertise in some area, start small and encourage their discussions in your meetings.  Once they become acclimated to small bursts of engagement, consider having them co-teach a training class in their area.  Small steps can lead to large change, and eventually, you may even be able to get them to do full trainings (they may even ASK to do them!).

Shyness is not something that will or can change overnight.  It takes time and determination.  One of the keys to successfully overcoming their shy nature, is to show them that in fact, people DO care about what they have to say.  That what they know is valuable to others, and should be shared.  The more positive reinforcement they receive, the more likely they will be to expanding in to other areas they wouldn’t have thought of before.

What other methods would/do YOU use to work with shy individuals (not just engineers)?  Do you have any caveats to what I suggest?  Please discuss with me in the comments!