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How to help your office wallflowers blossom

Are you writing off your shy employees? That woman who tallies numbers like a pro, but never speaks . . . the IT guy who can fix any computer snafu but who avoids other workers like the plague? If you are, you may be losing a great resource.

"Don't confuse a shy person with someone who's disgruntled or who just doesn't want to participate," says Chere Estrin, CEO of Los Angeles-based Estrin Organization, a professional legal and financial staffing firm. Estrin points out how to spot a shy worker: "Shyness is a form of social anxiety, and shy people find it hard to make eye contact. They speak in low voices and often blush and can have sweaty hands."

But with sensitivity from management, shy people can blossom. Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, advises employers to encourage shy employees to speak up in meetings and give them extra time to do so. "Never ask them to go first, don't expect a rapid response, and don't move on too quickly or talk over them," says Carducci.

Estrin also suggests briefing shy workers in advance about agendas so they feel more secure about speaking out.

To learn more about shyness, read Shyness: A Bold New Approach (Harper Perennial) by Bernardo J. Carducci. The chapter "The Successfully Shy Worker" talks about encouraging shy workers and helping them deal effectively with authority figures.

Ellen Paris is a Washington, DC, writer and former Forbes magazine staff writer.

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This article was originally published in the January 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Silent Partners.

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