Business professor Thomas Harrell discovered over a decade ago, when studying the traits of the most successful alumnae from Stanford’s MBA program, that they all shared one ability: fluency in talking with others. Grade-point average, by the way had no bearing on their success.
Think of this study when you notice that someone has been sending you emails rather than calling or meeting you face-to-face.
In fact, when you get together, does she or he stand back or avoid holding eye contact or speaking up?
While there are many possible reasons for their behavior, that person may, in fact, be chronically shy. More than most of us, they are extremely uncomfortable in social situations, especially around people they do not know well. Shy people tend to smile, touch, and speak less. In social situations they experience rapid heart beat, perspiration, and butterflies in the stomach.
As renowned Stanford professor, Philip Zimbardo suggests (in typical academic style), “Ordinarily, people tend to take credit for success and to externalize failure, or at least attribute it to unstable, specific and controllable factors. This attribution style protects self-esteem and promotes continuing efforts toward interpersonal and professional goals. In contrast, self-reported shy individuals reverse this bias in social situations by blaming themselves for failure while also externalizing success.”
What a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy!
Shy people think more negative thoughts about themselves, expect to be rejected, and perceive others as unapproachable. They are more likely to forget information presented to them when they believe they are being evaluated. In short, the world looks like a scary, unfriendly place, so—ironically—they often look unapproachable.
At what cost?
Shy people have more trouble meeting people, conversing, and forming relationships.
In his study, Thomas Harrell found that “The number one factor linked with success was social extrovertism, the ability to speak up,” something shy people are least apt to do. As Never Eat Alone author, Keith Ferrazzi so aptly notes when writing about Harrell’s study of MBA graduates, “Those that had built businesses and climbed the corporate ladder with amazing speed were those who could confidently make conversation with anyone in any situation. Investors, customers, and bosses posed no more of a threat than colleagues, secretaries, and friends. In front of an audience, at a dinner, or in a cab, these people knew how to talk.”
Two potent negative consequences of shyness are:
1) Shy people have greater health problems because they tend to have a weak network of friends, are less resilient to illness, and less likely to give doctors sufficient information to be treated
2) They're less likely to make money, live up to their potential at work, or feel appreciated for their contributions.
Why do more people describe themselves as shy? Is it our growing social isolation? With less time spent in face-to-face interaction, people are less comfortable with their ability to connect.
What can you do to reach out through your shyness? Seek out and create safe environments to experience the non-shy parts of yourself, without fear of judgment or negative consequences. Over time, you'll know that you can survive and even thrive in situations that had seemed scary.
Most of my childhood I was quiet and kept to myself, mostly because I enjoyed daydreaming and reading. But most people thought I was shy. I had to learn to reach out more so people would be comfortable with me.
When you connect and care, you live better—not because those gestures are always acknowledged, but because it is your brave and warm expression of how you want to live your life.
What has most worked for me in overcoming shyness, is to find the person in a group who appears least comfortable and engage that person in conversation.
To discover what makes that person tick. Perhaps even more importantly, uncover what most matters most to that person.
And, finally, of paramount importance, what the person in front of you believes she is best at and enable her to demonstrate that expertise or talent. Then one’s own shyness somehow melts away without consciously thinking about it, as the conversation inevitably takes interesting turns – and she warms up to you – and you to the best part of her.