Laura Weis with permission
Source: Laura Weis with permission

They have been labelled cautious, sensitive, shy and simmering stalwarts. They are people with clinical or subclinical Avoidant Personality Disorder. It is often regarded as having severe social phobia (Lampe & Sunderland, 2015), though there is always debate about its overlap with other disorders (Huprich, 2005).

 This disorder was recognised by all the early researchers like Bleuler and Kretschmer who talked of patients avoiding many people and social situations as a way of dealing with the extreme anxiety that they provoke.

The disorder did not appear in the DSM system until 1980 and in DSM-5 is part of Cluster C. This disorder is equally common in men and women and is believed to effect between 0.5% and 1% of the population. The DSM-5 suggests that APD affects around 2.4 % of the population but between 10% and 20% of psychiatric outpatients

People with this order appear to be severe social phobics in that they are socially isolated and withdrawn.  Feelings of possible rejection drive them to situations where they are likely to be shunned.  They constantly seek acceptance, approval, affection.

Various writers have tried to describe those with sub-clinical Avoidant Personality Disorder. Miller (2008) calls those with Avoidant tendencies “shrinkers”. He notes that because of their social inhibition they tend to lower level jobs with minimal interpersonal contact.  However, it can be their intelligence and technical skills that thrusts them into the limelight and a position of power.  They experience many deficits like not giving clear goals or constructive feedback. Further unscrupulous workers can find the avoidant boss an easy target because being unconfrontational people are allowed to get away with too much.

Miller (2008) believes that avoidant bosses can do better if they “regularise” with better schedules and standardised procedures.  This tends to reduce their anxiety and therefore improve their performance.  Often they lack social skills because having avoided people they have had limited practice.  Hence they are encouraged to listen and observe people more closely.

The website suggest CRINGES is a good way to remember the key characteristics of this disorder

C: Certainty (of being liked required before willing to get involved with others)

R: Rejection (or criticism) preoccupies one's thoughts in social situations

I: Intimate relationships (restraint in intimate relationships due to fear of being shamed)

N: New interpersonal relationships (is inhibited in)

G: Gets around occupational activity (involving significant interpersonal contact)

E: Embarrassment (potential) prevents new activity or taking personal risks

S: Self viewed as unappealing, inept, or inferior

These individuals show social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation.  They are super‑sensitive, delicate flowers.

They avoid occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.  Any chance of negative feedback is to be avoided.  They are unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked which is pretty difficult at work... indeed anywhere.

 They show restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed.  They are cold fish.  They seem always preoccupied with being criticised or rejected in work situations.  They are inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy.  They see themselves as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.  It can be puzzling to wonder how they ever became managers in the first place.  Certainly low self-esteem people rarely make it to the top in business.

These rather sensitive types seek safety: in people and environments they know and trust.  But they can easily become anxious, guarded and worried.  Beneath a polite and cool facade they can feel very uneasy.  They cope with their anxiety by being prepared for everything.  They like life, their friends and work to be safe, secured and predictable. 

They do not like the new: strangers, unfamiliar people or ways of working.  They prefer what they know and they try to make work a home away from home.  They can be effective, reliable and steady and show little need for variety and challenge.  They like routine and are pleased to help their seniors.  But they are not political in organisations and can take refuge in their professionalism.  They do well in technical fields that require routine, repetition and habit.

But the avoidants are so afraid of rejection they live impoverished social lives.  The paradox is that they avoid close relationships that could bring them exactly what they want: acceptance and approval.  Because the feel isolated, unwanted, incompetent, they are sure others will reject them and often they are because of their cold, detached behaviour. 

They are supersensitive to negative feedback and want unconditional love.  Yet they believe one cannot really be loveable unless one is without imperfections.  They are often very self-conscious and can feel strong self-contempt and anger towards others allergic to social anxiety they routinise themselves in a safe world.

Millon (1991) distinguished between 4 subtypes : Phobic (general apprehensiveness), Conflicted (internal discord); Hypersensitivity (wary and suspicious) and Self-deserting (fragmented self-awareness)

Dotlick and Cairo (2003) call those with sub-clinical APD excessively cautious and believe many CEOs are like that because of the constant scrutiny that they are under.  They overanalyse and procrastinate.  They require second, third, then fourth opinions before making a decision can have (very) serious (negative) consequences.  They stall, procrastinate and never give the go ahead until it is too late.  They believe there are three important subtle signs of this disorder. 

First, an unwillingness to fire anyone. 

Second, lots of effort through committees, timetable etc that achieves very little. 

Third, a serious, conspicuous and important absence of strong opinions in debate. 

.They recommend that often these “Mr Nice Guy” leaders need for prioritize, focus on past success, confront their worst fears and try something new. Ponderous, cautiousness is a serious management derailer.

Oldham and Morris (2000) summarise the diagnostic criteria thus:

"A pervasive pattern of social discomfort, fear of negative evaluation, and timidity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least four of the following:

Is easily hurt by criticism or disapproval
Has no close friends or confidants (or only one) other than first-degree relatives
is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked
Avoids social or occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, e.g., refuses a promotion that will increase social demands
Is reticent in social situations because of a fear of saying something inappropriate or foolish, or of being unable to answer a question
Fears being embarrassed by blushing, crying, or showing signs of anxiety in front of other people.
Exaggerates the potential difficulties, physical dangers, or risks involved in doing something ordinary but outside his or her usual routine e.g., may cancel social plans because she anticipates being exhausted by the effort of getting there." (p.  188-189)

Hogan and Hogan (2001) call business people with subclinical APD Cautious and stresses their fear being criticised, shamed, blamed, humiliated, or somehow disgraced. "They do not handle failure, rejection, or criticism well; as a result, they are constantly on guard against the possibilities of making errors, mistakes, or blunders, that might cause them to be publicly embarrassed." Because they are so alert to possible criticism, they see hazards and threats everywhere, even when others cannot see them.  They respond to the possibility of being criticised by hand wringing, perseverance, freezing, becoming very cautious, and by taking no action at all.  When they are threatened, they will also forbid their staff from taking any initiative.  These people are unpopular managers because they are so cautious, indecisive, and controlling."

Avoidant types can be prudent, careful, and meticulous about evaluating risk.  They rarely make rash or ill‑advised moves, and they can provide sound, prudential advice about intended future courses of action.  However, they avoid innovation, resist change, even when it apparent that something needs to be done.  They seem particularly threatened by the new, the different, and the strange, and they vastly prefer to react rather than take initiative.  If their working world is stable they can thrive: if not their behaviour maybe maladaptive.

Under stress, avoidants begin to adhere to established procedures, and will rely on the tried and true rather than on any new technology or other procedures.  They may try to control their staff, in fear that someone on the staff will make a mistake and embarrass them, especially with their seniors.  They do exactly what their seniors tell them and they enforce standard rules and procedures on their staff and others over whom they have any power.  They hate to be criticised; what others will see is cautiousness, rigidity, adherence to standardised procedures, and resistance to innovation and change.

To work with the cautious type reports need to keep them well informed about activities that concern them ‑ where negative outcomes could reflect on them, and to consult them about intended future actions.  When rapid action is needed, or when some form of innovation needs to be implemented, it is best to avoid them or put in writing the fact that you recommended action or innovation, then be prepared for nothing to happen.

The following five traits and behaviours are clues to the presence of what Oldham and Morris (2000) call the Sensitive style.  “A person who reveals a strong Sensitive tendency will demonstrate more of these behaviours more intensely than someone with less of this style in his or her personality profile.

1.  Familiarity.  Individuals with the Sensitive personality style prefer the known to the unknown.  They are uncomfortable with, even inspired by, habit, repetition, and routine.

2.  Family.  They stick close to the family and/or a few close friends.  They do not require a wide network of friends and acquain­tances, and they appreciate the comforts of home.

3.    Concern.  Sensitive individuals care deeply about what other people think of them.

4.    Circumspection.  They behave with deliberate discretion in their dealings with others.  They do not make hasty judgements or jump in before they know what is appropriate.

5.  Polite reserve.  Socially they take care to maintain a courteous, self‑restrained demeanour." (p.  174)

They provide seven tips for dealing with these types:

"1.  Count your blessings.  Treasure the closeness and loyalty that your Sensitive person offers you...

2.  Accept the Sensitive person complete with shortcomings.  If your Sensitive mate becomes stiff or withdrawn among strangers or is otherwise not him or herself in company, so what?

3.  Avoid emotional torture.  Don't insist that a Sensitive person do  things he or she shuns just to please you.  Sensitive individuals want you to be happy with them, but there are some things they just can't stand  doing                                                                                   

4.  Compromise...  Sensitive people want to please the important people in their lives, so your willingness to compromise may encourage them to take a few steps farther out than they would ordinarily go.

5.  Help.  Act as a guide to the unfamiliar.  Go to social events with this person and accompany him or her on jaunts into unfamiliar territory.  But don't overdo it... 

6.  Recognise the signs...  Reassure the Sensitive person that everyone is going to like him or her - what's not to like?

7.  Talk about it.  If the Sensitive person's anxieties are cramping your style, don't keep it to yourself.  Don't attack your loved one for having these difficulties.  Rather, express the problems openly and directly.  Say you are interested in finding a solution that accommodates both of you." (p.  184-185)


Dotlich, D & Cairo, P. (2003). Why CEOs Fail. New York: Jossey Bass

Furnham, A. (2015). Backstabbers and Bullies. London: Bloomsbury.

Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (1997).  Hogan Development Survey Manual.  Tulsa: OK.  Hogan Assessment Centres

Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (2001). Assessing leadership: A view from the dark side. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 9, 40–51.

Huprich, S. (2005). Differentiating avoidant and depressive personality disorders. Journal of Personality Disorders, 19, 659-673.

Kets de Vries, M. & Miller, D. (1985). The Neurotic Organisation. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass

Lampe, L.,& Sunderland, M. (2015) Social Phobia and avoidant personality disorder? Journal of Personality Disorders, 29, 115-130

Miller, L. (2008). From Difficult to Disturbed. New York: Amacom.

Millon, T. (1991). Avoidant Personality Disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 5, 353-362

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (2000). Personality self-portrait. New York: Bantam

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

You are reading

A Sideways View

The Freudian Account of Leadership Failure and Derailment

What do Psychoanalysts have to say about how and why leaders fail?

What Men Desire in a Woman

What characteristics are men most attracted to in women and why?

The Psychology of Queuing

Why is waiting in line so horrid?