Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.
Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:
My manager knows that I want to become a manager myself at some point, and is working on mentoring me in the skills I'll need. One piece of feedback he's given me is that I need to become more comfortable in semi-social situations (networking lunches or event dinners, and the like).
I'm not a terribly social person by nature, so I tend to feel a bit shy and out-of-place in situations like that. I've decided the career I want is worth it, but do you have any advice for a fellow introvert who needs to learn to be more social?
As an introvert myself who has been in the same situation and feels your pain, I'd recommend looking at the managerial (i.e. more social) job as a role you are playing, one in which you are a bit more self-confident, outgoing and talkative. Practice your overtures and responses with trusted family and friends, just as you might rehearse lines with them if you were in a play, and then gradually try out new approaches with your colleagues. Don't overload your schedule with too many events at the beginning as the goal is to expose yourself to a fearful situation over time so that it becomes less intimidating.
As an introvert, it will probably help you to have time to prepare, so ask for as much notice as possible when you are expected to attend a function. Find out exactly who you are meeting, what you'll be doing, and how long you'll likely stay. At the event, if you feel yourself fading, take a few short breaks to get some fresh air, or just chill out by yourself. Recognize too that these types of social interactions are naturally more energy-depleting for introverts, so allow yourself time later that day or the next time to replenish your reserves.
We all have areas to develop, and good for you for identifying yours and acting on your manager's suggestions. The best leaders are devoted to continuous self-improvement, so you are well on your way.
I love Alexandra’s advice to fake it until it becomes more natural; it’s surprising how well that can work. Over time, it will start to feel more natural – and in part, that will be a direct result of seeing that you can actually do just fine in those situations.
I’d also encourage you to remember that while it’s certainly true that it’s useful as a manager to be comfortable talking to a variety of people in a variety of situations (from wooing potential job candidates to promoting a project to board members), most of being a good manager isn't about being social. Yes, you need to have a basic comfort with it, but it’s far more important to excel at things like setting clear goals and plans to reach them, giving feedback, being fair and transparent, building a strong team, and having tough conversations. If you do those things well, your employees aren't going to care about whether you go to company happy hours or not.
To be clear, I’m not discounting the importance of the social events entirely, and it’s true that they’ll matter more and more the higher up the ladder you move, since you’ll increasingly be expected to represent your team to others in semi-social contexts. But believe me, there are plenty of fellow introverts at these events – we’re not an endangered species, after all – and as long as you show up and make some attempt at conversation, you’ll be fine. (In fact, simply showing up is often half the battle for introverts, since so often we just don’t want to go. So try starting by just vowing to show up and stay a couple of hours, and see how that goes.)
Being an introvert is just one aspect of your personality, and your personality is just one small piece that influences your work behavior and performance. Good managers can be either introverts or extroverts, with no difference in effectiveness other than the unique strengths each style brings. But if your introversion is a particularly stubborn trait (one that you exhibit quite often and don’t adapt much depending on the situation), it can become a glaring weakness that threatens to color the rest of who you are. To overcome that tendency, you can actively work to change some of your behaviors that will make a big difference in how people perceive you without altering the core of who you are as a person.
1. Preparation – decide which situations are important enough to actively manage. It takes a lot of energy to step outside of your comfort zone so make sure that your efforts are being put to good use. Then make a plan for what exactly you will do differently. Anticipate a conversation, prepare a story, or think ahead about what open-ended questions you can ask people.
2. Confidence – you are probably not the only one that is uncomfortable and if that surprises you, it’s because most people can’t tell (or aren’t paying enough attention to) what we are internally feeling. Act as if you were confident. You are prepared, after all.
3. Authenticity – you can fake a higher level of confidence, positivity, and energy than you really feel… but keep it real otherwise. Being who you are is perfectly fine—just express it, instead of keeping it to yourself.
4. Follow-Up – remember people, including what they said, and use that as a stepping stone for interactions with them in the future.
The first thing you need to tell yourself (and repeat as often as necessary) is that just because you are more introverted or shy does not mean you don't have something of value to offer. In fact, in this world of buzzing texts, ringing cell phones and obnoxious blowhards, your quiet presence will greatly appeal to many people.
I suspect you're a great listener and someone who thinks carefully before offering an answer. What a treat you will be for those who don't feel heard, who feel they're being judged and passed over for more interesting folks at a networking event! You will be the one who is interested in asking more in-depth questions, who will influence through your quiet strength and insight. What you have is truly special - let that be your mantra when you feel intimidated by a group or out-of-place. You're exactly the breath of fresh air they're looking for!
In the meantime, I'd like to suggest you get a book by Jennifer Kahnweiler called "Quiet Influence: The Introvert's Guide to Making a Difference," which can help you learn to use your natural strengths in a room full of extroverts.
Remember: You just have to be your authentic self to be of value and become successful. You won't turn into an extrovert overnight and no one wants you to. What you have to offer is of value - the key is making sure you see that and are willing to offer it.