Calvin calls in sick on days he’s supposed to give a presentation. Melinda has stellar ideas she only communicates through email. And Jess told you outright that she has a diagnosis of social anxiety.
There’s a good chance that you manage someone with social anxiety. You (and they) are not alone. Nearly 50% of Americans consider themselves “shy,” which is just the everyday word for socially anxious. And 12%, at some point in life, will meet criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder, which means their anxiety gets in the way of living the life they want (think passing up a promotion because it would mean leading trainings) or causes great distress (like a weeklong stomachache and lost sleep before an annual review). Indeed, social anxiety ranks as the third most common psychological disorder, right after the heavy hitters of depression and alcoholism.
Interestingly, traits underlying both social anxiety and star performance at work overlap considerably. People with this type of anxiety often have high standards and a commitment to thorough, well-done work. It’s also a treatable condition, and the benefits don’t fade, even when the anxiety ebbs.
But whether an employee has social anxiety isn’t always obvious. It may be Calvin, with his panicky dread of public speaking. Counterintuitively, it may also be someone who can deliver a dazzling scripted presentation, but clams up when it’s time for on-the-spot questions. It may manifest as another employee’s difficulty being assertive and giving constructive feedback, but also someone else’s tendency to plow through with their head down and not ask for feedback until a project is nearly finished.
One of the first questions I often hear from managers who want to be supportive is whether or not they should bring up the behaviors they’re noticing. Is it appropriate to call out patterns? You should only start a discussion when the shyness or social anxiety is getting in the way of the person’s career or is negatively impacting others. Don’t try to force people to conform to your idea of what “normal” behavior should look like. Support the introverts who wear headphones when concentrating, recharge by eating lunch at their desks rather than in the break room, or put in an appearance at Friday beer hour and then head out. In short, embrace a wide range of personalities and working styles.
But if you do notice that the person’s anxiety is interfering with their performance, you can start the discussion. Of course, you can’t ask about private health information, but thankfully, you don’t need a confirmed label. Instead, you can inquire about specific tasks or behaviors they have the opportunity to develop — for example, effective delegating, public speaking, communicating within the team, giving constructive feedback, or time management (procrastination and excessive polishing go hand-in-hand with social anxiety — more on this below).
Whatever the task, ground your conversation in positive regard, not criticism. Show you care about them and their career path. “I really appreciate your attention to detail on these reports. As you move up in your career, there’s going to be less time to be as thorough as I know you prefer. Let’s put our heads together about how to be ready for that next level.” Or, “I’ve noticed your schedule is swamped, which tells me you’re in demand. Let’s talk about delegating so your time is spent on what only you can do.”
If the employee tells you they have social anxiety, there are several things you can do to be a supportive manager.
When an employee (or friend or family member, for that matter) discloses social anxiety, the most common response is to accommodate them. There’s an urge to be a protector: to give them permission to stay home from the conference, not give the presentation, or opt out of the training.
And while short-term accommodation can be useful, over the long term, there’s a fine line between accommodating and enabling. Social anxiety develops and is maintained through avoidance, so supporting them in facing their fears at their own pace is more productive than granting ongoing permission to opt out.
Rather than being their protector, be their champion. In ongoing discussions, ask what they want to accomplish. Where are they currently, and where do they want to be? What can you do to help them achieve those goals? What challenges would they like to take on? Then, collaborate with your employee to set goals that are both realistic and challenging.
For example, if presentations are their Achilles heel, encourage them to start small by introducing a guest speaker or moderating a Q&A. Alternatively, encourage them to join a public speaking group like Toastmasters. Over time, they can work their way up to larger groups and longer talks.
The bottom line: always be a collaborative champion. Resist assigning them a task that would be “good for them” without a back-and-forth discussion. Invite; never push.
We all know (or are) a shy or introverted individual who lights up when performing on stage. Or we may work with a colleague who is awkward at small talk but is a top performer when set loose with clients. Why? There’s a clear role to play. For a socially anxious individual, structure can set them free.
Why? Anxiety is driven by uncertainty. Therefore, winging it is paralyzing. Improvising, especially in a public forum like a meeting, is daunting. Instead, capitalize on your employee’s strengths and let them excel in more structured roles. For example, your employee may struggle in an informal meet-and-greet but shine when leading a recurring training. They may dread a panel discussion but knock a scripted PowerPoint presentation out of the park. Match them with structured tasks that allow them to shine.
Likewise, for the socially anxious, there is no such thing as spitballing. Usually only an articulate, well-thought-out paragraph will do. To ensure you hear everyone’s ideas, offer alternative venues to public brainstorming. For instance, provide questions in advance of a meeting or offer a chance to weigh in by email later so they have a chance to express their ideas in a way that’s comfortable to them.
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