Social Anxiety at Work:

A Back to School Flashback

Dave in class.jpg

Welcome back, and happy back to school week! I hope that you had a great August and took the time to soak up the last drops of summer. For those who are outside the U.S., as well as south of the Mason Dixon line, back to school may feel like it was eons ago. But for many Americans, the week after Labor Day is unofficially the kick-off of a new school year.

Two years ago a loved one asked me to write about social anxiety at work. And for two years I procrastinated on this request. I didn't know what to say; I knew that I wasn't the right person to write about it. While I should have asked for help, frankly, I wasn't organized enough to find a more qualified subject matter expert. But now that I'm refocused, organized, and ready for new content, I thought that back to school was the perfect time to revisit this feeling that's rooted in childhood.

For me, just hearing the phrase "social anxiety" provokes images of feeling left out as a kid. That lump in your stomach during fourth period, where your mind starts to drift to, "Who am I going to sit with in the cafeteria?" No matter how outgoing and grown-up you are, that cafeteria question never leaves you.

The fear resides in me as much as anyone else, but I have the ability to turn on the extroversion, pretty much at will. However, I recognize that for others the anxiety can be debilitating, and the fear is so strong that it may cause one to shy away from a work event altogether - whether it's networking or just having lunch with colleagues.

So to get a more empathetic view on the topic, I brought in my introversion resident expert Dave Sellers, for his take on social anxiety in the workplace, including advice for introverts and extroverts...

 

When I was first approached about writing an article for the blog, my first thought was, “What work or career-centric concept could I possibly offer that my intelligent, executive MBA-holding, internationally-connected business leader wife hadn’t already thought of and mastered?!?” 

However, once she divulged the topic, it became clear that there was indeed an unfamiliar concept to her that I could write volumes on: being an introvert. More specifically, how social anxiety can manifest itself in the workplace.

For those of you who know us, our social styles are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Although I moonlighted for a few years as “London Dave,” where I indeed felt a sense of unparalleled social confidence and acceptance amongst the reserved British, in general, I revert to the introvert side of the scale. This is common in my technology field; however, I’ve never fully worked out this chicken-or-egg scenario: has my career in data caused me to be more introverted? Or are introverts more inclined to go into technical fields that may emphasize individual contributors?

These tendencies, of course, exist both socially and professionally. So throughout the workday, one faces dozens of exchanges that can feel dramatically different between an extrovert and someone who experiences anxiety when dealing with common social situations.  That’s not to say that an introvert isn’t interested in developing close relationships with his teammates. It simply means that it takes conscious energy for him to engage. (Fast Company has a cartoon that describes us perfectly). 

To explain, here are personal takes on real-life scenarios, along with some tips to navigate these types of situations. I call them W.A.I.T. moments: What’s An Introvert To-do?

 

Scenario 1: The infamous “water-cooler” talk

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Okay, so there likely isn’t an actual water cooler in your office, but I’m referring to daily informal interactions like getting a coffee or hanging out in the kitchen. You’re thinking, “Oh no, here comes coworker Jim. I just came over to get a drink, but I want to get back to my desk because I think I just solved a big problem! [Editor's note: only an engineer would think this]. But if I leave right now, will he think I’m being rude?”

 

W.A.I.T.

Try to conjure a mental image of any personalizations that Jim may have on his desk, then use that as an easy conversation starter. Great prompts are family or team photos, sports memorabilia, or quirky desk toys.

(Or if you’re lucky, Bill from accounting will show up and dive into a monologue about the latest cute thing his cat did!)

 

How an Extrovert Can Help

Try to use your expertise in reading body language, you extrovert! Don’t force a conversation if the person doesn’t look open to it. 

If he is, try the same tactics on easy topics, such as things you’ve seen around your introverted colleague’s desk or what you’ve heard him talking about to others, in order to keep things in his comfort zone. Gradually build rapport.

 

Scenario 2: “Is anyone sitting here?”

Dave at lunch.jpg

Just because you’re no longer in school doesn’t mean there aren’t some cafeteria social dynamics that stick with us. Where do I sit? Who do I ask to join me? What will my team think if I sit with someone from another team? 

 

W.A.I.T.

Take the cafeteria out of the equation altogether.

Grabbing lunch away from your desk and office not only gives you a mental refresh but also gives you a chance to interact with co-workers outside the work walls, putting everyone at ease. 

If you’ve got food options nearby, take a walk and get some exercise too. If not, at the very least find a place away from your desk to eat.

 

How an Extrovert Can Help

In the spirit of trying to establish a deeper connection, try something informal and in a smaller setting that’s less likely to feel as overwhelming as a big team outing. 

A former manager always had our 1:1 catch-ups offsite at a coffee shop [editor’s note: pub]. We both felt more at ease and freer to have honest discussions about things that were(n’t) working. 

Some may be used to this as a standard, but I suspect many people may only know the standard “30 minutes in a conference room, once a month.”

 

Scenario 3: Working virtually

Dave at typewriter.jpg

As remote working increasingly becomes the norm, these team structures present unique challenges in collaborating and fostering relationships. The subtlety that is personally my “biggest small annoyance” is the introductory “Hi, how are you? Good thanks, and you?” at the start of many an IM or phone call. 

For me, this conversation filler is just dancing around the real point of “What do you want from me?”  You didn’t contact me just to chat.  I don’t intend for this to come off as anti-social, but we’re at work to work, so give me some business background and ask away; I’m happy to assist.

 

W.A.I.T.

You may be wondering, if I have this “just the facts ma’am” approach, how do I foster collaboration and rapport with teammates, which I admit, is important? I’d suggest one of two ways:

1. Personally, I limit more personal pleasantries and learning about my remote colleagues to the end of the day or week. At these times, people are generally more relaxed and less on edge about time pressures. This allows for deeper connections rather than just perfunctory greetings and autopilot responses.

2. Using videoconferencing for occasional meetings can be a good way of bridging that remote feeling and make it easier to remember that there’s a real person at the other end of the computer!

 

How an Extrovert Can Help

Respect your co-workers’ communication style, as long as it isn’t at the expense of achieving work goals. 

If they prefer one-off exchanges on chat applications throughout the day, don’t feel the need to impose your communication style on them (unless you’re in a sort of reporting relationship where it’s your prerogative to try to ensure the team operates in a standard way).

Like any uncomfortable situation, some combination of developing coping strategies and repeated practice is a must, but hopefully this introvert's viewpoint can allow you to be more at ease if you err on the side of introvert, or empathize with your less-outgoing colleagues if you’re a natural extrovert. 

 

Given our multiple moves over the past several years, each one has presented me with an “opportunity” (Julie made me say this) to come a bit more out of my shell. I'm close to finding a happy compromise as an “omnivert,” being able to understand and perform at both ends of the spectrum.

 

 

PS: I’m by no means an expert, so if you struggle to connect with introverted colleagues, check out these resources:

How Managers Can Help Their Introverts Network

11 Tips for Working with Introverted Employees

5 Things Your Introverted Co-worker Wishes You Knew

 

Thank you, Dave!