Technology Making Us Shy?

Recent studies into the rise in reported shyness amongst adults has lead to the theory that our increasingly technological life-styles are making us shyer than ever before.

Scientists tell us that about 1 in 5 people are probably ‘hot-wired’ to be shy. It’s part of their personality. But anything from 48-60% of the population, depending on which studies you use, consider that they are or have been shy. That’s a marked increase just in the last 20 years.

What’s changed? Our life-styles have.

Kids no longer go out and play in the street with their friends. They sit in the house playing on their computer or Xbox. They often only interact with their peers in the school playground for short periods during the day. They see very little of their parents, who are working long hours to keep their lifestyles.

Socializing is a learned behavior.

We have to practice getting along with other people. There are so many rules that need to be learned. But kids aren’t getting a lot of practice at it anymore. And they’re exhibiting more and more signs of shyness and social phobia. These shy kids become shy adults.

What does that mean to Leaders? It means that those who follow them, their employees, their business associates, their ‘tribes’- are becoming less and less able to interact comfortably with each other -face to face, that is. They’re getting to be experts at technological interaction: emails, phones, texting, twittering and other social media.

But it’s when you try to get them to work as a team, face to face, the problems arise.

Of the ten people sitting around your board room table on any given day, at least one of them considers his life negatively affected by shyness.

And it isn’t necessarily the quiet guy sitting in the corner doodling. It may well be the loud-mouth who always has something to say, even if it’s not relevant.

You see this guy has learned to mask his shyness by behaving in certain ways. It works for him. And as he doesn’t have to do very much one to one with people, he usually gets by with these behaviors. Even if they drive everyone else to distraction.

Hey, you can put up with the ‘idiot’ in the group for short periods can’t you? If you had to deal with him for longer periods, you’d probably find some way to change his behavior. He’d get enough feedback to learn that people didn’t like his mask. And he’d change it.

Why? Because rejection is one of our greatest fears we have as human beings. Unconsciously we equate acceptance with survival. Rejection, any kind of rejection, threatens that survival.

So the loud-mouth doesn’t notice people avoiding him because he rarely comes in contact with them. He gets by the way he is.

What does that mean for the leader? It means that the shy people within his ‘tribe’ negatively impact face to face processes. This in turn diminishes the power of synergy that is possible within the group. This means less output. And this, for any leader, is the bottom line.

Studies have shown that chatting over the coffee machine is highly productive behavior. Rather than distracting from the daily activities, it allows relevant information to be passed informally between people. Leads are generated organically.

But the shy person doesn’t do well in informal gatherings. There’s very little benefit gained from this situation for them, or those around them. And as more and more people enter the work force unable to ‘play nicely together’ the less synergy happens naturally.

And away from work, the shy guy home lives in comparative isolation. This leads to more stress and increased illness, in turn leading to increased absenteeism, which reduces productivity. The bottom line again.

What can a leader do to overcome shyness amongst his tribe?

Identify people who are at risk – both the overtly and covertly shy. Find mentors for these people that can befriend and support them, as they learn more effective ways to interact. These mentors or coaches need to be ‘people people’- sensitive and caring.

There is nothing more counter-productive than assigning an insensitive mentor, who lacks empathy for the condition, to a shy person. Shy people, whether extroverted or introverted, are hypersensitive to the reactions of others. So they will ‘get’ pretty quickly that there is something wrong with them, and withdraw even further into their shell.

As a leader, it is also important to identify situations where you feel shy. Situations you choose to avoid because they make you feel uncomfortable. You are also not at your productive best if inhibited by shyness.

Surprisingly, many of the world’s greatest leaders were shy- people like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S Grant. And just to remain true to my feminist roots- Clara Barton, (the founder of the Red Cross Movement) and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Consider ways that you can get people interacting more naturally in your workplace, and provide incentives for staff to socialize outside of work time. You aren’t just doing your ‘tribe’ a service, you’re helping your organization function more effectively.