That ad pictured above for the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, suggests that avoiding people is just part of being quiet. Actually, crossing the road because you don’t want to make small talk with somebody is an anxiety disorder symptom. Reacting to that anxiety will only make you experience more anxiety in the future, along with all of the depression, regret, and other co-morbid unpleasantness that goes along with feeding compulsions.
Quiet makes an argument for businesses leveraging the power of quiet superheroes but it makes some missteps in not having a clear understanding of the difference between quiet and anxious. And that’s a big difference. Catering to the introverts in your organization will deliver dividends, but encouraging anxiety disorders will lead to projects falling apart and employees on long-term sick leave.
Back when I struggled with anxiety disorders, I also thought it was a good idea to avoid crossing the street so I didn’t get caught up in small talk. And I had tons of reasons, too: It feels uncomfortable. What if she remembers I didn’t respond to her last email? I feel awkward telling him I don’t have time to chat. He probably doesn’t like me, anyway. I probably don’t like him, anyway. Do I even remember her name? And so on.
That is not introversion. That is just pure and simple social anxiety. It’s a reaction to an uncertainty. When we struggle with an anxiety disorder we believe so firmly in our reasons for avoiding human contact but always feel terrible later about being lonely and unable to connect or relate to people. It took me decades to see the connection. I was desperate for relationships but would compulsively invent reasons to not engage with others for fear of messing it up or it not turning out “right”. And the less I engaged with people, the more difficult and fearsome it became. And that only made me more desperate for it, which only seemed to make the excuses louder: “I’m not a people person. I need my alone time. I’m intelligent–I’ve got important things to think about. I’m good at thinking. I’m good at analyzing.” I wrongly assumed that being friendly would somehow compromise my intellectual abilities. This is a common, false connection that people with anxiety disorders make–when we’re trapped in the cage of our anxiety disorders, we believe that our compulsion imbue us with superhuman abilities. They don’t. You can get rid of all of your compulsions and instead of losing yourself, what you actually find is that you’re finally able to be yourself. Whatever you thought you excelled at before, you end up being ten times better at when you’re not devoting all of your time and energy to compulsions, anxiety, and regret.
What that ad for Quiet is describing is not somebody who is quiet, but somebody desperate to be loud that has muffled her true self by stuffing fear down her throat. And that’s a big problem for organizations. Encouraging that muffling is going to cause your business to lose out on great ideas. The gap between who she knows she is and who she is acting as in public will eventually become so enormous that most of her energy will be devoted to maintaining the bridge across that gap she’s constantly having to cross between those two selves. Eventually you’ll lose that employee. He’s desperate to connect with others so if your company encourages the anxious compulsions that are preventing him from connecting with others, eventually he’ll leave. He’ll say they didn’t like the people there, that it wasn’t a good fit, that they just didn’t click. But all of that was preventable.
Build a healthy approach to anxiety among your employees and colleagues. If somebody at work is uncomfortable and anxious about something, don’t take that as a sign to avoid something. That anxiety is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a sign-post pointing to a larger issue. Understand what’s at the root of that anxiety and help your employees to accept and move through it. You’ll have healthier employees and a healthier organization.