How do I manage a "timid" disposition in the working world?
February 24, 2021 3:12 PM   Subscribe

I've always been identified along a similar range (I'm 33 now): quiet, shy, introverted, reserved. Since at least middle school, I've noticed people who are gregarious, charismatic, and assertive, and envied them their (apparent) ease in life, knowing that that's not how I function. For the most part, I've grown out of it being an issue. However, I notice that it still comes up in the working world. 

An example: I'm in accounting, and I once interviewed for a collections position, which would have required calling people and being both charming and assertive enough to convince them to pay their bills. During the interview, the manager noted that it takes a certain personality, and I seemed more on the reserved side. I couldn't really disagree, knowing how much energy it would take to use a "fake it til you make it" approach if I had a job like that. It caused some tough introspection though, realizing that she had clocked it 15 minutes after meeting me.

Currently, I do invoicing at a firm that's had some trouble defining roles in the accounting department, and is looking for a billing manager. My colleague, who has a different job in the department and was hired at the same time as me (~18 months ago), called me today to give me a heads up that she'd been in some meetings with management, and my boss was hesitant to consider me for the billing manager position because I was "timid". There's a whole backstory here about the structure of this department and patterns ingrained by my previous job, but it boils down to the fact that in absence of explicit assignments or promotions, I'm more likely to stay back, observe, and keep my eyes on my own work. Meanwhile, said colleague, who is much more headstrong, has been getting reads from various employees, making sure people she works with get recognized for their effort, and reporting back to management with issues she sees. Part of this is due to the access she has, but I'm pretty sure a lot of it is that I just don't consider going out of my way like that, not wanting to overstep my boundaries without being sure it's okay. 

Knowing all this, what are good strategies for conducting myself? I don't necessarily have C-suite or high leadership aspirations, but when people don't know much about me and I give off that "timid" vibe, I don't think I'm doing myself any favors as a first impression. I'm trying to find the balance between making adjustments, which I've done so far and am still open to, and knowing that I'll probably never naturally be the life of the party or the A+ job candidate, at least not without a lot of acting and energy drain. Are there ways to play to my strengths without selling myself short?
posted by thoughtful_ravioli to Work & Money (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: honestly? these folks are doing you a big favor to spot a mismatch between your personality and the kind of personality it takes to be successful in billing/collections.

going into job roles that don't play to your strengths kneecaps you in a terrible way. You keep trying to overcome the handicap with hard work, and all that happens is that you work harder than others for less success. It plays havoc with both your self esteem and your career trajectory.

my best advice is to identify what you ARE good at, like what your real talent shines, and get really good at its professional applications. That will build your confidence; and people will respect your contribution when it's excellent. The first step is to be honest with yourself about what you're naturally good at.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:36 PM on February 24, 2021 [31 favorites]


Have you tried "Six Pillars of Self Esteem"?
posted by kschang at 3:37 PM on February 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


I had to read this question a couple times before I saw this:

My colleague, who has a different job in the department and was hired at the same time as me (~18 months ago), called me today to give me a heads up that she'd been in some meetings with management, and my boss was hesitant to consider me for the billing manager position because I was "timid".

So ... has your boss told you that you are timid? Or is this third-hand through a peer/colleague stirring up the pot of "you know, the teacher doesn't really like you?" Is the peer/colleague also in the running for this promotion?

Even if there's no drama llama around, it's worth a conversation with your manager to say you are interested in moving into Role XYZ and what skills would a person in that role need for success?

(I say this as someone who spent her school years so reserved that my evaluations were always "she should talk more in class/in meetings/at work." It took an extroverted supervisor when I was 30 to recognize that my introversion was a strength and recommend me for certain roles, that I actually started to realize that quiet people can be leaders too! If, like me, you are the type to rise to the responsibility you're given, please make sure your supervisor knows that!)
posted by basalganglia at 4:19 PM on February 24, 2021 [8 favorites]


Best answer: Assertiveness training is a thing in the professional world. I work in science and regulatory policy, and people coming from the hard sciences can sometimes benefit from picking up skills like the characteristics that communicate assertiveness, charm, empathy, and so on. I'd estimate that I've asked about 20% of my staff to take this training. It can be difficult to take, because it requires a kind of earnest commitment that I think many people find embarrassing, or eye-rollingly woo (it can be a bit like taking improv classes, depending on the kind of training you take). That discomfort, though, is a good experience to have, even if it doesn't register--I find it makes the hard science folks gain an appreciation for their less formally trained colleagues who are nevertheless extremely gifted and practiced with people skills and persuasive arts.

For all of these things, I tend to tell folks that none of this is required but all of this is exposure that can make an impression, even a subtle impression, that makes a difference in some way. One of my shyest new hires from a decade ago, by way of an extreme example, is now the director of our entire department in the country where she lives. She strained to get through the assertiveness training, which she found uncomfortable for how exposed and seen it made her feel, but she did ultimately say that that experience made her more willing to test herself within our field (where she is a clear subject matter expert) after experiencing how uncoordinated the experience felt to her in the training exercises (which were not based in out field).

If you're interested, your HR folks can probably point you to any number of courses in these "soft" skills. It doesn't mean you have to adopt a new persona, it just means you're interested in seeing what's out there.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:27 PM on February 24, 2021 [11 favorites]


If you really want to change this (and you don't necessarily have to), I encourage you to separate your personality from your ability to do things like taking the initiative at work.

If you met me you would say I was 100% extrovert - I like people, I'm gregarious, I'm friendly, all those things. Yet I still get similar criticism from my boss and her boss about taking the lead on things without being told to do so. Like you, I am hyper-sensitive to not stepping on toes, I'm a people pleaser and feel most comfortable doing what people want me to, and sometimes I just don't think to take initiative on things (or am too busy to, which is a separate issue).

Find the strength in being the quiet one. Maybe by sitting back in meetings and observing, you are well positioned to write down things that you're seeing and later compile it into a memo that helps identify trends or possible solutions, because you're not blathering on in love with the sound of your own voice (like me). Maybe you can take the initiative to do background research into what other companies do to solve problem X or Z and present it in an email to your boss. There might be ways to prove you have value to your organization without having to fundamentally change who you are.

Does this require getting over a little bit of shyness? Sure, but it doesn't mean changing your entire personality and maybe with the right org and right role you can find what feels right. Don't try to be like your outgoing coworker; instead figure out how to be the YOU that helps your company (and by extension yourself) succeed.
posted by misskaz at 4:38 PM on February 24, 2021 [7 favorites]


Best answer: said colleague, who is much more headstrong, has been [a] getting reads from various employees, [b] making sure people she works with get recognized for their effort, and [c] reporting back to management with issues she sees. Part of this is due to the access she has, but I'm pretty sure a lot of it is that I just don't consider going out of my way like that, not wanting to overstep my boundaries without being sure it's okay.

Assertiveness training might be a great idea. But in the meantime, you could start small. One day or week at a time, pick some small concrete step you can take to do [a], [b], or [c] above, or something similar. If you're worried about overstepping boundaries, you could schedule a talk with your boss where you tell them you want to work on your assertiveness and on taking a more active role, and you'd like their support and feedback; you want to be able to rely on them to tell you if you ever actually do overstep, give you good feedback when they see you taking good steps, and suggest further valuable steps you could take.

Keep a record of the new steps you take, what results they have, and how you felt while or after doing them. Consider also keeping track of any and all accomplishments you're proud of at work, however small. For me at least, assertiveness goes hand in hand with feeling competent; I'm not good at faking confidence, but when I do actually feel confident in the quality of my work I have no problem asserting myself. If that sounds familiar to you, then keeping an actual record of your competence that you can look over from time to time and remind yourself of could help you feel more assertive without faking it.
posted by trig at 4:42 PM on February 24, 2021 [5 favorites]


"honestly? these folks are doing you a big favor to spot a mismatch between your personality and the kind of personality it takes to be successful in billing/collections.
going into job roles that don't play to your strengths kneecaps you in a terrible way."


I totally agree with this. My job has changed on me and at this point is far more about my personality weaknesses than my strengths, and it's terrible. And do you really want a collections job, where everyone is angry at you for asking them for money? Timid is actively bad for a customer service-y job. I laughed at the "charming and assertive enough to convince them to pay their bills" description, because it's a pandemic! If people had the money to pay, they would pay! It's not gonna be a case of "Oh, I liked you so much! I wasn't going to pay my bill, but now I am!" Collections is dealing with upset people. Is that really your jam? Will you be bothered to be screamed at, or does that flow off your back?

in absence of explicit assignments or promotions, I'm more likely to stay back, observe, and keep my eyes on my own work. Meanwhile, said colleague, who is much more headstrong, has been getting reads from various employees, making sure people she works with get recognized for their effort, and reporting back to management with issues she sees. Part of this is due to the access she has, but I'm pretty sure a lot of it is that I just don't consider going out of my way like that, not wanting to overstep my boundaries without being sure it's okay.

I don't know if this is a "timid" issue so much as the person you're being compared to is much more outgoing and extroverted and is going above and beyond in her work, and I guess you are...not doing that. She's expanding what she's doing, she's looking for ways to improve things. I guess "timid" in this case means that you are doing your job only, not trying to be any better than just the job.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:49 PM on February 24, 2021 [3 favorites]


So I generally agree that there’s nothing wrong with you and that you’d be better off in roles that fit your personality. That being said, if you insist on trying to be more outgoing, one trick I’ve seen recommended is to imagine a character who behaves the way you want to behave, and then imagine yourself as an actor playing that character. I’ve actually heard that Ronald Reagan did this. Say what you will about his politics, he deserves it, but you can’t say he came across as timid. Of course, he was also a professional actor, but it’s something to try. When you walk in the door to your office (or whatever your WFH equivalents is, get into character and stay there until you leave.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:56 PM on February 24, 2021 [4 favorites]


If you care about social justice, try speaking up (respectfully, calmly, assertively, factually) in online conversations. "This kind of thinking is sexist / racist / transphobic etc because XYZ. It would be more respectful to approach this issue from ABC." type statements.

You can start in large fairly anonymous groups with strangers and work your way in to eventually be able to say it to actual friends (perhaps in private depending on the relationship, but if you say it respectfully in public, it can be ok).

Don't make personal attacks, just factually state the problem and why and respectfully offer an alternative. If people start arguing, just hit "turn off notifications for this post" and walk away: you said what you said, you know you're right, drop the microphone and leave their shitty party.

I assume that doing this will raise your heart rate a bit and make your stomach churn and make you feel unsettled- pretty standard conflict stress responses. But it won't actually hurt you and it will increase your tolerance for stress and conflict, and over time it will likely make you feel more confident and more comfortable being assertive, which will eventually show up in your body language, voice, and communication both verbal and nonverbal.

Certainly being a bill collector or any level of leadership would involve that kind of social friction fairly often, so if you have interest in that kind of role, this is a free (and good for society) way to practice!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:44 PM on February 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I've thought a lot about how to respond to this, as a person who started out shy and cultivated gregariousness / charisma / assertiveness - the qualities you listed as things you are not. I would suggest you try to communicate your thought process a little more explicitly with others.

'm more likely to stay back, observe, and keep my eyes on my own work. Meanwhile, said colleague, who is much more headstrong, has been getting reads from various employees, making sure people she works with get recognized for their effort, and reporting back to management with issues she sees. Part of this is due to the access she has, but I'm pretty sure a lot of it is that I just don't consider going out of my way like that, not wanting to overstep my boundaries without being sure it's okay.

You can just... ask. "Hey X, I finished my tasks early, is there anything I can take off your plate?" or the like. "Hey Y, I see that we handle our jobs a little bit differently, can we sit down to compare? I want to see if I'm missing a trick." And then... talk it through. It may feel word-vomity and uncomfortable, but in knowledge and process work, getting your brain out there so you can build a shared understanding about your work with others is really important.

A technique that has helped me with asking for favors or time is making sure I 1, always frame myself as a student or learner, very conscious of the time of my "teacher," 2, make sure I've done my homework beforehand, and 3, always offer someone an explicit and gracious out. Most people (in my privileged experience) usually want to help, and are happy to if you address their concerns upfront (you respect their skills/abilities/time, you've done the homework so they're not spending time addressing surface items, and an explicit out means they can decline without losing face).

This takes a lot of energy, even when I've been practicing it for years. I don't consider it an intrinsic part of myself but part of my work persona. Like, at home!snerson really doesn't care about workflow efficiency, but work!snerson will cheerfully talk about it for an hour if needs be. It doesn't say anything about my value as a person or the character of my soul, it's just a practiced attitude that helps me actively get through the workday. I take it off like I take shoes off.

but it boils down to the fact that in absence of explicit assignments or promotions, I'm more likely to stay back, observe, and keep my eyes on my own work.

This is not a bad way to be, at least in terms of work-life balance. Talk to your manager about expanding the definition of "your own work" to include things like crosstraining with other employees, independent research?, assertiveness courses like the above mentioned, any "workplace extracurriculars" (my company has a bunch of employee interest groups like vets, queer people, younger folks, women in tech, etc), if you are in a big enough environment.

I would also recommend looking around for someone who models the kind of behaviors you want to adopt. That could be your friend, or you could ask your manager for someone in their network who is good at assertiveness who wouldn't mind mentoring you. You might also consider asking if you can mentor somebody else - I've found that being in a small teacher/leadership role is a strong incentive to model behaviors I'm working to adopt.

Finally, if Toastmasters is a thing near you, I'd recommend visiting or sitting in on one of their meetings. They're a public speaking club that attracts the sort of folks who are looking to improve their presence and speak up a little more, so you'd find yourself in good company, even if you don't end up committing to the club curriculum.

Good luck, and let us know how you do! We're cheering for you!
posted by snerson at 8:57 AM on February 25, 2021 [4 favorites]


« Older Shipping framed movie posters from Toronto to...   |   Really Good Upholstery for a Couch Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.