Career Path

The Penalty for Being Shy

Studies show gregarious types have an edge. Can others who aren’t extroverted get ahead without giving up their personality?

The boss doesn’t like you. The company is cutting back on the department you shine in. Everyone in the work world expects their share of challenges. But it turns out your most cherished you—your personality—may hold you back the most.

Companies want engaged employees, and a recent analysis of nearly 45,000 professionals says that personality could predict almost 50% of the way people engage at work. The people who were “positive, optimistic, hard-working and outgoing” tended to show more engagement, researchers found. The study was particularly interesting because up until now, most research on employee engagement has focused on specific contexts at work—like the culture of an organization or leadership quality—not a person’s own traits.

One study found 55% of messaging comes from body language, while only 7% is conveyed through actual words.

Of course, people can’t change their entire personality, but there are several conscious strategies you can deploy to stay up with the chatty Cathys in the office.

Let your boss hear from you

We know it sounds obvious, but one of the best ways to show you’re engaged at work is to regularly check in with your boss. Though this is best done in person, “introverts have a tendency to be better at expressing themselves in written communications,” says Gabrielle Bill, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. To that end, you can mix up face-to-face meetings with emails or progress reports, if you think you can relay your enthusiasm and progress better.

Focus on nonverbal communication

For introverts, demonstrating engagement is especially tough in group contexts. Unlike extroverts, who speak up even if their ideas are half-baked, introverts generally need to think things through first. Which means they often don’t say anything. “If you don’t speak up, people assume it’s because you have nothing to contribute,” says Kim Zoller, CEO of ID360. “You have to prove them wrong.”

One way to make contributions is to rely on nonverbal signals. A study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that 55% of messaging comes from body language, while only 7% is conveyed through actual words. By taking notes, nodding your head in agreement, and making eye contact with those who are speaking, you can make your engagement quite powerful.

Take small steps, starting with observation

It takes time to change behavior, particularly behavior that goes against what feels natural to us. But setting small, tangible goals—such as speaking up at least twice a week in meetings—can help improve the way you’re viewed. If you’re stumped on how to do this, start by observing the behavior of extroverts, says Mary Abbajay, president of the Careerstone Group in Washington, DC. Do they chitchat before meetings or invite colleagues for coffee breaks? By noticing the little things, you’ll start to glean ideas for how you can push yourself within the proper context of the company.

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