History has examples of powerful, socially shy leaders.  U.S. Presidents James Madison, Jimmy Carter, 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 consider it “work.”

The Shyness Continuum:

40% of the U.S. population defines itself as “shy.” In reality “shy” is a behavioral continuum. 

Try this exercise:

On a scale of 0 (not shy) to 10 (anti social) 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 question.

If the number you gave yourself is higher that 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 has conducted some pioneering research on how shy people think.  And one of the ways they think is to inappropriately use generalization logic while not using enough situation specific logic.  (1986).

For example, causal attributions of shy students (N = 36) were compared with casual attributions of 36 control students in ten different situations.  Significant differences between the two groups emerged when explaining outcomes of situations (Teglasi, 1982).   As one moves up the Shyness Continuum, there is more emphasis on one pattern of logic that might or might not be appropriate in the given situation.

An Example of Generalization Logic:

Two-year-old Jennifer goes with her mother to visit one of 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." 

This explanation is an example of Generalization Logic.  It extrapolates behavior from one situation and then predicts similar behavior in nearly all situations. As you move from towards 4+ on the shyness scale, people have a cognitive framework that biases them to draw generalization logic conclusions.  Sometimes the generalization logic is useful.  And sometimes it is not. We see it all the time in our practice with the following statements as “I’m bad at networking” or “I can’t do cold calling.” 

Let’s revisit the same situation with Jennifer and her mother.  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 offers no hope of change.  But the second explanation focuses 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 and you are unaware that your logic is unbalanced.  This unawareness 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 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 4+ 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 4+ shy boss might have a cognitive bias about leaping to the conclusion that this subordinate is “not a team player.”  The 4+ why boss might discount the subordinate’s explanations about the unusual context of the situation as “rationalizations.”

 The consequence could be the loss of valuable team members and the erosion of your effectiveness. 

Someone with a more situational logic framework might be inclined to not 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 pattern in applying findings from one patient to a new patient.  

Like any pattern of thought, however, effective leaders are deliberate about how often they employ generalization logic.  And they see the limitations of generalization logic. 

If you are on the 4+ side of the shyness continuum, generalization logic might be such a routine way of looking at the world, you may inappropriately discount situational explanations. And that discounting could limit future growth opportunities for you. 

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 get known as a “player” within your profession.  

You join one association and attend one cocktail party.  The evening was 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 a title of a book on coaching by Marshall Goldsmith (1988).  That phrase is the basic paradox faced by many of the people we work with in our practice: the discipline and habits of thought that got them to this level of professional growth now must be untrained if they are to move to a new level.  

Habits of thought are very difficult to change, particularly if they have been effective in the past. 

If your perspective is imbalanced between generalization logic and situational logic, find a third party to help you get into the habit of a 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.  “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”  

Another option is to look for career professionals who are certified by the nonprofit Institute for Career Certification International (www.careercertification.org).  Certification requires three levels of peer review.  It is the equivalent of the FACS for surgeons.

Changing patterns of logic can’t be done using only good intentions.  There is a discipline that must be followed to overcome behavioral habits.


Fatis, M. (1983). Degree of shyness and self-reported physiological, behavioral, and cognitive reactions. Psychological Reports, 52(2), 351-354. 

Goldsmith, M. (2008). What got you here won't get you there: How successful people become even more successful. Profile Books. 

Teglasi, H., & Hoffman, M. A. (1982). Causal attributions of shy subjects. Journal of Research in Personality, 16(3), 376-385. 

Zimbardo, P. G. (1986). The Stanford shyness project. In Shyness (pp. 17-25). Springer US


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