Shyness is not the same as introversion, although the two personality traits sometimes overlap. An Introvert needs time alone to recharge after busy work periods and gets mentally drained after spending a lot of time with others. A shy person is much more anxious about the social interaction itself. 

Most people are shy to some extent—the garden variety type of shyness where you’re taking stock of the situation before you speak up. But in some cases, the shyness serves as a type of imprisonment where the person becomes locked inside her own anxiety and fear: How am I perceived? Do my coworkers think I'm weird, awkward or embarrassing? How can I talk to the boss without sounding like an idiot?

In extremes, shyness can prevent someone from speaking up and getting the things they need at work and in life. Their quality of life can suffer, and this can result in an unhappy employee who is not fulfilling her true potential. 

As a manager, it may be necessary to make a little extra effort to create a trusting relationship with shy employees. Here are some tips to help you on the way.

Shy or Introverted?

Shyness and introversion have long been confused but they are not the same. Introverted people are characterized by the fact that they are easily overstimulated by the external world, which makes them eager to withdraw to recharge their batteries. But they are not necessarily shy. There's no anxiety driving the preference for solitude versus social time—just a need for rest and alone time at regular intervals.

The opposite also applies—shy people can be extraverted. Just because someone is energized by being “out there” does not mean they’re not terrified by it. This means that many shy people can suffer from being labelled as loners, when they would in fact benefit from participating in social interaction.

What we’re really talking about here is choice. An Introvert can choose to skip a networking event, not necessarily because she’s afraid of strangers, but because she doesn’t want to deal with people at that time. Or she can choose to go and find ways to manage her energy levels—by taking regular bathroom breaks for example.   

A shy person has much less choice. That’s because there’s potentially a high cost involved depending on the level of shyness. For these individuals, interacting with others is not just an energy drain that needs careful management; it’s paralyzing.

And that can make it really challenging for a shy person to establish functioning relationships with both managers and colleagues. 

How to Create a Relationship

If you are a manager or team leader then it is your job to create good relationships with all your reports, even those who are shy. This is not always easy. But there are some things you can do to get the maximum from a shy employee’s potential.

Take your time

For shy people, it takes a long time to learn to trust others, so you’ll need to put in a constant, sustained effort—and go slow. Set aside some time each day or week and have a casual chat with the shy employee; limit your conversations to little and often for maximum effect. During these conversations, you should try to create a picture of why the employee feels uncomfortable in different social situations. Is she worried about judgment, rejection, or saying or doing the wrong thing? What about the good points: does she have a particular strength, or a time and place where she does her best work?

By focusing on building a trustful relationship in the long term, you can figure out what’s triggering the anxiety. This will help you find ways to help the shy employee handle certain situations and adopt strategies that fit his preferences.

Don’t break their momentum

We all need time to understand the situation we’re in, and shy people may need a little longer than others to get comfortable with new environments, processes or people. The intelligent manager will not rush or interrupt this process. If you want your shy employees to feel comfortable at work, give them space and respect their boundaries as they warm up to each situation.

A shy person can have a very hard time coming up with a response on the spot, for example, so don’t bombard them with questions at the water cooler. As a general rule, opt for written communication such as email. Emails are great for shy people, as there’s time or them to organize their thoughts and plan exactly what they want to say, without nervousness getting in the way. 

Respect (and gently push) the boundaries

Never embarrass a shy person in public. A careless remark or public remonstration can do a lot of damage, so it’s best to make your points in private. At the same time, you must be mindful of pushing the shy person out of his comfort zone—the more he is allowed to withdraw, the harder it will become for him to get comfortable with a situation and have positive social interactions.

Regular one-on-one meetings are ideal for shy workers because you interact with them in a friendly and personal environment, giving them lots of praise for the good things they’ve done and gently pushing them towards professional growth. Use this time to encourage the shy person to give his opinion. The aim is to give him as many opportunities to come up with a good and thoughtful answer as you can, so the employee feels more secure when presenting those opinions in a team meeting.  

Be fair

This sounds obvious but it’s worth emphasizing—rules should be universal and applicable to all. This means that no one should be let off because they’re gregarious and fun to be around, and your office culture favors the bold. The concept of favoritism creates big problems with shy people who feel even more pressure to shout about their accomplishments and be something they’re not. Challenge these messages and take the lead. If your employees can see that you are fair, they are more open up to you.

Do not take the silence personally

Shy workers may choose to keep their head down in the office, avoid small talk, and be slow to voice an opinion. The fact that they do this does not mean that they are moody or antisocial, so avoid making negative assumptions about them. In fact shy employees tend to be extremely good at looking before they leap, assessing risks and thinking before they speak, which can help decision-making. Beneath the reserved exterior, you may have a deep and creative thinker on your hands.

If you feel upset about the silence, then it’s time to check yourself. The most important thing is that you do not try to change the individual. You're going to turn a shy person into an outgoing person, or an Introvert into an extravert, by willing it so. Reach out and build a bridge.

Jayne Thompson
Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.