Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Socially Anxious, or Just Shy?

Can a little bit of social anxiety be a good thing?

Many people experience a sense of shyness now and then. However, an intense concern and fear of social interactions can lead to social anxiety. Our research has investigated the role that Social Sensitivity plays in contributing to social anxiety.

Social sensitivity is knowledge of social norms and conventions and concern over the appropriateness of one’s social behavior. Social sensitivity is a key component of social skills, or social competence. Average amounts of social sensitivity aid us in social interaction, serving as a regulator so that we behave in line with social rules. Social sensitivity is a bit like our social “conscience” that ensures that we listen attentively to others, understand the intricacies of social interactions, and behave appropriately. In extremes, however, social sensitivity can lead one to become OVERconcerned with our own social behavior to such an extreme that we may become distraught and paralyzed into inaction.

So, a moderate amount of social sensitivity is good because it helps us maneuver successfully in social situations. Too little social sensitivity and an individual can be like a social “bull in a china shop”—dominating social interactions, focusing on his or her own social goals, and not considering others. Too much social sensitivity leads to social anxiety and a concern, or even a fear, of behaving inappropriately in social interactions that causes the overly socially sensitive person to become a social wallflower.

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How can you develop the “right amount” of social sensitivity? Those with social sensitivity “deficits” can work on effective listening behaviors, and practice focusing on others—asking questions, restating the other’s concerns or points, and trying not to dominate conversations. Too much social sensitivity? The strategies are similar to overcoming shyness. Learn to initiate conversations, to make small talk, to try not to be overly critical of yourself. These are social skills/competencies, and they can indeed be developed in order to maximize your effectiveness in social life.

For more on social sensitivity and social skills/competence...

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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