History is full of examples of powerful, socially shy leaders. U.S. Presidents James Madison, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon come to mind. The beloved American investor Warren Buffett is shy yet highly effective in business and public life.

In our work with leaders, we have found many effective sales executives may spend
their professional time meeting new people, but they consider it “work.”

The Shyness Continuum

Forty percent of the U.S. population defines itself as “shy.” In reality, “shy” is a behavioral continuum.

Try this exercise:

Using a scale of 0 (“not shy”) to 10 (“antisocial”), assign a number to how shy you think you are. After assigning yourself a number, approach three people who know you well. Ask them to assign a number to you using the same scale.

If the number you gave yourself is higher than the number assigned to you by people who know you, perhaps you are using a pattern of thought called “generalization logic.”

Stanford University Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo conducted pioneering research on how shy people think, and he found that many inappropriately use generalization logic while not using enough “situation-specific logic.” (1)

For example, in one experiment, causal attributions of shy students were compared with causal attributions of control students in ten different situations. Significant differences between the two groups emerged when they were asked to explain the outcomes of situations. (2) As it turns out, the higher one is on the shyness continuum, the more likely one is to explain things in terms of generalization logic.

An Example of Generalization Logic

Two-year-old Jennifer goes with her mother to visit one of her mother’s friends. Jennifer is hugging mother’s skirts and avoiding eye contact with the friend. Mother says to her friend, “I’m sorry, but Jennifer is shy.”

The mother’s explanation is an example of generalization logic. It extrapolates behavior from one situation and then predicts similar behavior in nearly all situations.

On the higher end of the shyness scale – say people who rank at 5+ – people’s cognitive frameworks bias them to draw conclusions based on generalization logic. Sometimes, the generalization logic is useful. Sometimes, it is not.

We see it all the time in our practice when candidates make statements like, “I’m bad at networking” or “I can’t do cold calling.”

boxLet’s revisit the situation with Jennifer and her mother. Suppose her mother now says the following: “I’m sorry, but Jennifer tends to be shy when first meeting strangers. I’m sure she will act differently once she gets to know you.”

Notice that this logic focuses on situational context. It avoids generalization. It explicitly states that a change in conditions would change Jennifer’s behavior.

The first explanation – the one based on generalization logic – offers no hope of change, but the second explanation focuses specifically on change.

Effective leaders should be able to use both situational logic and generalization logic. But as you move up in the shyness continuum, your pattern of logic might be unbalanced in favor of generalization logic, and you may be unaware that your logic is unbalanced. This lack of awareness may bias your decisions in ways that harm your career and your organization.

Overuse of Generalization Logic Can Be Dangerous

A recruiter calls a chief financial officer (CFO) about an opportunity that would require relocation from Boston to Tulsa, Oklahoma. One CFO who is lower on the shyness continuum might employ situational logic in the following manner:

“The job interview itself is worth my time, if only for interview practice. I am not interested in moving to Tulsa. But who knows? Perhaps the firm will have an opportunity that is too good to pass up. I’ve never been to Tulsa. I should not judge it until I see it. I will never know unless I give it a try. After all, it is only a job interview. My family might enjoy a change of scenery, or they might not. Let’s cross that bridge if and when we need to cross it.”

A CFO who is 5+ on the shyness scale might have the following logic pattern:

“What happens if I get an offer? My spouse would never move to Tulsa. My children will be angry at me. I will alienate my children, and my spouse will divorce me. I will end up living alone in a cheap motel in Tulsa. I will have all my meals at the local Burger King! Is that any way to live??!! I will not go to Tulsa for a job interview.”

Using Generalization Logic in Evaluating Subordinates

This same type of generalization logic can also reduce your effectiveness in evaluating people who report to you.

For example, someone complains that an associate on your team was rude to a customer. The 5+ shy boss might have a cognitive bias about leaping to the conclusion that this subordinate is “not a team player.” The 5+ shy boss might discount the subordinate’s explanations about the unusual context of the situation as “rationalizations.”

Someone with a logical framework based more in situational logic might be inclined not to take action until a pattern of rudeness emerges.

Generalization Logic Can Be of Value in Moderation

Generalized logic is a great skill to have because it assumes that lessons from one event are easily transferred to other events. Attorneys use generalization logic when looking to apply case law. Physicians use generalization logic in applying findings from one patient to a new patient.

As with any pattern of thought, however, effective leaders must be deliberate about how often they employ generalization logic. They must see the limitations of generalization logic.

If you are on the 5+ side of the shyness continuum, generalization logic might be such a routine way of looking at the world that you may inappropriately discount situational explanations. And that discounting could limit future growth opportunities for you.

Join the Conversation: Does Being Shy Make It Hard to Advance in Your Career?

For example, you know that you need to develop a social/professional network outside of your job situation. Life is uncertain, and you do not wish to be dependent upon your boss for your future income. You know you need to join a professional association and become known as a “player” within your profession.

Say you join an association and attend one cocktail party. The evening turns out to be unproductive and boring. You conclude: “This association is a waste of time and money.”

Do you see the generalization logic employed here? A situational logic explanation might be that perhaps meeting people at cocktail parties is not the best way for you to get known or get to know others. Perhaps you might want to volunteer your time on a committee of the association.

‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’

This is the title of a book on coaching by Marshall Goldsmith (3). The phrase encapsulates the basic challenge faced by many of the people we work with in our practice: They must unlearn the discipline and habits of thought that got them to their current level if they are to move to a new level.

If your perspective is imbalanced between generalization logic and situational logic, find a third party to help you get into the habit of taking a more balanced approach. Consider asking your boss for coaching assistance. It is one way that the company can demonstrate its commitment to you as part of its future. These days, asking for a coach is as much a sign of weakness as an adequate golfer seeking the help of a golfing coach to improve
her putting.

Another option is to look for career professionals who are certified by the nonprofit Institute of Career Certification International.

You can’t change your patterns of logic simply through good intentions alone. You need a certain amount of discipline to overcome these bad behavioral habits.

This article was adapted from Navigating the Waterfall: Your Job Search and Career Management Guide, produced by Stybel, Peabody & Associates, an Arbora Global Company.


1. Zimbardo, P. G. (1986). “The Stanford Shyness Project.” Shyness (pp. 17-25). Springer US

2. Teglasi, H., & Hoffman, M. A. (1982). “Causal Attributions of Shy Subjects.” Journal of Research in Personality, 16(3), 376-385.

3. Goldsmith, M. (2008). What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. Profile Books.

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