You sit patiently in the conference room at work, waiting for the weekly meeting to start. Your boss arrives, and the meeting gets underway. Co-workers share their opinions as to which workplace policies are working and offer suggestions for improvement. You notice that your co-worker Fiona hasn’t said anything. Come to think of it, she hasn’t spoken up at any of the weekly meetings. You remember that she used to ask you to share her suggestions for her, until you made a joke about her reluctance to draw attention to herself. Since then, Fiona hasn’t spoken to you much. You resolve to make an effort to socialize with Fiona more.
The meeting ends, and you return to your desk. The phone rings, but you’re in the middle of talking to a client and can’t answer it. Fiona’s unoccupied, but she makes no move to answer the phone. Once you finish up with your client, you head over to Fiona’s desk. “Why didn’t you answer the phone?” you ask. “You’re much better at answering client questions than I am,” Fiona replies. Remembering your resolve to socialize with Fiona, you ask her to join you and your fellow co-workers for drinks after work. Fiona looks down at her hands. “I have to clean the house tonight,” she mumbles. “Maybe next time.” You recall that Fiona has answered, “Maybe next time,” to all of your invitations.
The painfully shy co-worker is often the Avoidant Personality Disordered co-worker. Co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder do what their name suggests: they avoid. They avoid relationships, social situations, novelty, and taking risks. They don’t avoid these things because they aren’t interested in them; they avoid them because they fear criticism or rejection from others. They’re extremely sensitive to negative evaluation, whether real or imagined. Consequently, co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder appear uncomfortable and inhibited in interpersonal situations. It’s common to hear them express feelings of inadequacy; that is, if they trust you enough to confide in you.
Don’t confuse Avoidant Personality Disorder with introversion. Introversion is a healthy personality trait present in all workplaces. Introverts are fully capable of handling themselves in social situations. Because they don’t need as much social stimulation as extraverts do, they may decline invitations to social gatherings from time to time. That doesn’t mean that they feel uncomfortable in interpersonal situations, or that they will decline all social invitations in future. Co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder, however, will avoid social situations out of fear of being rejected or criticized.
If you work closely with someone who has Avoidant Personality Disorder, then you may find yourself saddled with the interpersonal aspects of your job. Co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder will pass off interpersonal job tasks whenever they can. Those tasks might include answering the phone, meeting with clients, or giving a presentation. If you feel like your co-worker is negatively impacting your workload, then consider the following suggestions for interacting more effectively with co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder. Keep in mind that many of these suggestions apply equally to bosses and employees with Avoidant Personality Disorder.
Encourage your co-worker to handle interpersonal job tasks him/herself. The next time that your co-worker asks you to take a call for him/her, say no. Reassure your co-worker that he/she is capable of answering phone calls on his/her own. Offer to stand by in support while your co-worker tackles an interpersonal task.
Deliver constructive criticism in a supportive manner. Co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder are more sensitive to negative evaluation than you or I. It’s important to separate your co-worker from his/her work when offering constructive criticism; otherwise, he/she risks taking the criticism personally. It can be beneficial to couple criticism with praise when providing your co-worker with feedback, as long as the praise is accurate and relevant to his/her work.
Don’t pressure your co-worker into engaging in social situations which create discomfort. If your co-worker isn’t ready to join the office holiday party yet, then don’t make him/her feel obligated to do so. You’ll make more headway with your co-worker if you start by interacting with him/her on a one-to-one basis until he/she feels comfortable with you.
Refrain from teasing your co-worker until you’ve developed a close relationship with him/her. Co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder are likely to take good-natured ribbing as severe criticism. They already see themselves as socially inept or unappealing to others, so teasing risks reinforcing (1) their negative self-image; and (2) their tendency to avoid social interaction.
Offer your co-worker reassurance when needed. A little reassurance can go a long way towards building trust with an Avoidant Personality Disordered co-worker. If your co-worker feels insecure about giving a presentation, then reassure him/her that he/she has the skills to complete the task effectively. If he/she is unsure as to whether other co-workers will like him/her, then remind him/her of his/her positive qualities.
In most cases, co-workers with Avoidant Personality Disorder don’t pose a problem in the workplace. You may not even realize that they’re there. If, however, you feel burdened by one of these co-workers dumping work off on you, then be firm with that co-worker from the start. Chances are, they’ll start avoiding you, too.
Bianca Lallitto has a Master's degree in Psychology with a certificate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She has a penchant for behavioural analysis, and enjoys exploring the possible causes of people’s actions. Her analyses frequently extend to the world of fiction; her thoughts on the behaviour of fictional characters can be found on her blog, Fiction Digest.