We’ve all been there, cringing at what we just said to our co-worker or worried that we will have to spend the rest of eternity avoiding that one colleague to save face.
Awkwardness is frequently thought of as an insecure, negative trait to be cured of, but what if it was actually the key to unlocking professional success?
This is the argument behind “Good Awkward: How to Embrace the Embarrassing and Celebrate the Cringe to Become The Bravest You,” an upcoming book by workplace performance expert Henna Pryor.
“They think of it as either a deficiency or a weakness that they need to fix. ‘If I still feel awkward at work, it must mean I’m not ready, or it must mean I don’t have enough confidence,’” Pryor said. “When in reality, awkwardness is, A) an emotion that’s 100% universal, and B) something that’s completely unavoidable if professional growth is our objective, because at every inflection point of growth, you’re exponentially increasing and inviting the likelihood of awkwardness.”
Pryor defines workplace awkwardness as “what we feel when the person we believe ourselves to be ― so our true selves ― is in a moment temporarily at odds with the person that people see on display.”
Work long enough and you’re bound to have many awkward, self-conscious encounters. Here’s how to embrace those inevitable moments to get ahead, according to research and experts.
Research suggests that showing some awkwardness can make us appear more human and likeable to colleagues.
The truth is, the people you admire at work have all experienced awkwardness ― they just know how to power through it.
“When you actually think of people who you perceive as super competent, what you’ll notice is in awkward situations, they actually lean in, they go further into it, they own it, they laugh about it, they actually relish the moment, versus the ones that we perceive as coming across as less confident are the ones that tend to run in the other direction,” Pryor said.
“When the researchers asked students, “If this person were a fellow student, how likely is it that you would ask her to join a study group that you were a part of?” the students were more likely to pick the person with an embarrassed expression.”
Studies suggest that expressing embarrassment can make you seem more trustworthy, caring and cooperative to observers. In other words, we see social awkwardness as a sign that you’re trying hard, and we reward that with a greater desire to trust and work with you more.
Across a series of studies published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, participants were more likely to view embarrassment as a signal of generous behaviour and social relational commitment.
In one of the experiments, students viewed photos of different people who showed either gaze-averting, small smiles of embarrassment, blank neutrality or a chin-up prideful expression. When the researchers asked students, “If this person were a fellow student, how likely is it that you would ask her to join a study group that you were a part of?” the students were more likely to pick the person with an embarrassed expression.
As Matthew Feinberg, the lead author of the paper, recounted to Science Daily, “Moderate levels of embarrassment are signs of virtue...Our data suggests embarrassment is a good thing, not something you should fight.”
Pryor said leaning into her awkwardness has helped her. She recalled a meeting where she thought a client was raising his hand for a high-five after her sales pitch.
“And I was like, ‘Yes...killed it.’ And I gave him a huge high-five. In the next breath, he goes, ‘I put my hand up because I was telling you to stop.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God. So awkward. It’s so cringe,’” Pryor said.
In that instant, she said it helped for her to own up to the fact she had misread the situation and name it as “beyond awkward” to him.
“It was actually alarming how instantly his shoulders relaxed, because all of a sudden, he saw me as this human,” Pryor said. “I did end up closing the deal, but I honestly am thankful for that moment because it was the connection point we needed in what was otherwise a stiff conversation.“
Psychologist and executive coach Lauren Appio agreed that acknowledging awkwardness can be stressful in the short-term but ultimately relieving.
“If you’re ruminating about an interaction, challenge yourself to approach the other person and name what happened. Not from a place of looking for reassurance, but just offering an acknowledgement. It can be as simple as, ‘Hey, I know I had a lot to say about your idea this morning.’ Or, ‘I realised I walked right by you the other day!’” she advised. “You’re not necessarily apologising, offering an explanation, or asking for forgiveness ― you’re just showing some self-awareness.”
It can be a win-win to acknowledge your awkwardness: You come off as socially conscious, and you grant your co-worker tacit permission to give feedback on whether the interaction was actually awkward or not.
“Often, the acknowledgement alone provides the repair needed if it is needed, or you’ll actually get some reassurance and connection in response. All of these outcomes are a win!” Appio said.
Embrace opportunities to share your imperfect moments. Your colleagues will relate.
Beyond naming awkward encounters as awkward, you can strengthen work relationships by reflecting on the source of your feelings, and sharing them with others. Here’s how:
Reframe the judgmental assumptions you hold about your awkwardness.
“Maybe you’re not awkward, you’re earnest, sincere or transparent. Maybe you’re a really thoughtful person and need time to organise your ideas before you share them, so being put on the spot leaves you feeling a bit tongue-tied,” Appio said, noting that these qualities can also make us innovative, caring, invested and relatable.
“When we recognise these qualities as gifts, our energy can be freed up to approach our work and career our way, instead of depleting ourselves trying to fit a mould,” she said.
Understand that one awkward moment is unlikely to make or break your relationship.
“Think about the times someone was a bit awkward with you,” Appio said you can ask yourself. “You may have a hard time remembering them, because most of us forget about these interactions instantly! Hopefully, that realisation alone will bring you some relief.”
Normalise not being perfect if you’re a leader.
Pryor said she coaches leaders to share “cracked egg stories” about blunders or projects that did not go right at the start of meetings, and invite team members to share their own cracked egg stories, too. Especially in hybrid environments where co-workers have less visibility about what they are each doing, it can help to normalise setbacks and it can inspire more generative discussions.
Remember you’re not alone with feeling awkward.
“We’ve all cringed about something we’ve said or done,” Appio said. “Hopefully, we can use those very human experiences to extend some grace to ourselves and each other.”