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.”


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.”

Let’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.

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