What To Do When Shyness Is Ruining Your Career

Photographed by Anna Shvets.
Nadia Finer is a podcaster, mindset coach and author of nonfiction book Shy and Mighty. The below is an excerpt from her book about struggling with shyness her entire life and includes advice on how to stop it affecting your career.
The hiding starts early. And so does the missing out. The hubbub and chaos of loud, noisy classrooms favour loud, noisy kids. Shy kids struggle to speak up and be heard. In class, shy kids may know the answers but never say so. They avoid sharing their work and their ideas. They avoid standing up in front of the class, getting involved in activities and teams, performing under pressure, and competing. They worry about putting up their hands in case they make a mistake. They don’t like being put on the spot, being looked at or having to speak in front of lots of people.
I remember sitting in a class discussion. I had a lot of ideas and things I wanted to say. Until the teacher said those fateful words, ‘We’ll go round the room,’ and pointed to the guy on his left. I was sitting to his right. My heart sank. I was going to be last. I’d have to wait. And come up with something new, that nobody else had said. My heart started beating faster and I felt a sudden urge to run away. But I was trapped with my back against a bookcase and couldn’t move an inch. There was nowhere to run. By the time it was my turn, my voice was so tiny, barely anything came out. It was twenty-five years ago, yet I remember the panic so clearly.
All this hiding has an impact on our professional prospects too. Research shows that outgoing people are more likely to get promoted, earn more money and work in senior positions than shy people. We avoid speaking up in meetings and are often completely silent. We are told to contribute more but finding your voice in an environment dominated by extroverts can feel impossible.
The longer you remain silent at work, the longer you keep your ideas and opinions locked away, the harder it becomes to speak up and contribute. Getting stuck in a rut of silence, makes hitting our unmute button feel like a dramatic event. The less often you speak, the more likely it is that all eyes will be on you when you do. It’s not just talking in front of people we don’t know that intimidates us. We are also daunted by people in authority, people we feel are in competition with us and people we know well. Even if they don’t mean to, knowing that everyone in the room is rooting for you can feel like a lot of pressure! Representing your work and your ideas can feel daunting, and the fear of judgement paralysing.
We find it hard to put ourselves forward for opportunities. We avoid asking for pay rises. We tend to focus on doing the work, rather than talking up the fact that we’ve done it. We keep our heads down and get on with it. We are so afraid of attracting too much attention, whether that’s by messing up, or shining too brightly, that we can end up shuffling along, failing to fulfil our potential. We find it hard to play the game, to raise our profile and stand out, particularly in an environment that can feel cutthroat and competitive. So, we aim low, and go for jobs we know we can handle, ones that don’t push us too much or force us to face our fears.
But when we fail to speak up, our potential is silenced. We are overlooked, underestimated, undervalued, underappreciated. We miss out, on recognition, success – and money!

Tips to Combat Shyness In Meetings and Work

Have a huddle
Discussing or working on a project in a small group is undeniably quieter and more productive than holding large, noisy meetings. If meetings are not your thing, have a quickie huddle with the people who matter most.
Shine a light on someone else
Share the success of someone in your team. It can feel awkward talking about your own achievements. But if you talk about the team effort, and mention other people’s achievements, while discreetly showing that you were the one steering it all, it’s subtle and effective.
Buddy up
If you’re not a fan of sharing back to the team on your own, team up with someone and share ideas in a pair. Start by just standing with them as they share your combined efforts. Then, over time, build up to saying something, then gradually spend more time talking. Until it’s just you.
Find your niche
Have an idea of what you want to be known for. Don’t just let stuff happen to you. Look out for opportunities to shine. If you’re not keen on bragging about your own achievements, perhaps you could offer to write an article for the website? Or get involved in a volunteering project? Think about what would work for you, and go after it, rather than feeling frustrated because you don’t want to do the stuff everyone else seems to find easy.
Goal getter
Be intentional about meetings. Set yourself a mighty mission for every meeting you attend. Perhaps you intend to smile at three people, introduce yourself, say one thing or ask a question. If you hit your goal, don’t forget to give yourself a little reward. Boom.
Ask away
If you haven’t managed to contribute to the meeting yet, and anxiety is setting in, don’t panic. The first step toward getting involved in the conversation is simply to ask a question. Ask for clarification, an opinion or next steps. Not only is asking a question a pressure-free way to contribute, but a pertinent question has the power to focus a conversation on what’s really important.
Careful consideration
Leverage your listening skills. Become known as the person who listens and then, when everyone else has finished waffling on, comes up with a carefully considered point or a fresh perspective. ‘Having listened to everyone’s opinions, it seems to me...’ or ‘Having weighed up our options, the best course of action appears to be...’ Be the smart summarising person who separates the meatballs from the spaghetti.
Follow up
If you didn’t manage to say everything you wanted to say during a meeting, follow up with key people via email. Demonstrate that you’ve given the matter extra thought – which you certainly will have done!
Shy and Mighty by Nadia Finer is out now in hardback, published by Quercus

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