Americans actually fear not having an opinion to give. Research has demonstrated that we will even provide opinions on fake subjects (such as our attitude towards completely fictitious drugs listed on a survey). We can’t stand to be without firmly held convictions on pretty much any subject, real or imagined. And if we can’t come up with our own, we’ll use somebody else’s, as others are all too willing to provide us with filler. George Bernard Shaw once wisely observed, “If you leave the smallest corner of your head vacant for a moment, other people’s opinions will rush in from all quarters.” We do so love expressing an opinion.
But apparently, there are unfortunate individuals that are pathologically afraid of other people’s opinions. If your neighbor is in the Klu Klux Klan or works for Fox News, you might be justified in a certain level of trepidation when they express their opinion. That’s just plain sane, and obviously not the specific malady I am referring to. I’m talking about a phobia so severe that the poor folks are literally afraid to listen. I mean, all out fear of listening to other people’s feedback or opinions to the point that their palms get sweaty, heart rate increases, and rapid or shallow breathing ensues. Further they experience extreme nausea, and not the “you’re so stupid, I think I’m going to be sick, sort of nausea. More like being 9 months pregnant in New York City in the month of August. And yes, I’m still bitter about that. But anyway, I am actually referring to a psychological problem called allodoxaphobia. I swear it is a real phobia. Trust me, I’m a psychologist. Officially, allodoxaphobia is a psychological disorder characterized by an overwhelming and irrational fear of other people’s opinions. Fortunately, this is a fairly unusual and rare disorder, or so say the clinical psychologists (when you wake them up during a therapy session), which in some cases can make it all the worse for those who suffer from it—they may feel isolated or stigmatized by their condition.
However, as a social psychologist that specializes in organizational psychology I want to posit that this phobia is not all that rare in the workplace. I think I have figured it out. I feel like I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night. I have been wondering for years why certain colleagues just couldn’t sit still and actually listen to feedback or the opinions of others. They claim to want it. Will ask for it in a meeting, and when others start to provide their opinion, said individual literally turns away, walks away, starts sewing, or hangs up the phone. In such situations, I have thought, wow that person is manifesting an acute dismissal of other people’s opinions. Actually, I usually think, “what a jerk”, but jerkiness puzzlingly has no entry in the DSM 5. Apparently, there is a DSM diagnosis for allodoxophobia and there are medications to treat it. Can that be distributed in the watercooler, or would that be some sort of OSHA violation? Most people experience fear as a healthy response to a dangerous situation. But do other people’s opinions constitute a dangerous situation? It just might for those who believe their own hype or those bent on ruling a workplace according to their own grandiosity or megalomania. I recall a staff member once literally ran from me as I tried to get her to acknowledge that what she does during work hours in the workplace (or in this case outside) was in my need to know zone. She kept saying she didn’t need my opinion and that I shouldn’t engage in psych 101. The irony of saying that to a trained psychologist is tragically comic. All this stemmed from me stating that leaving at noon, not returning, and not letting anyone know constituted a breach of workplace rules. Actually being at work, or telling people why you’re not where you are supposed to be is sometimes considered optional. Apparently, that was just my opinion and she had to run away from me. It was as if she suffered from allodoxaphobia.
Now, while the phobia is real (or as real as we are led to believe anything in the DSM is), it is rare and I do not believe that all our colleagues are suffering from the real thing. But it sure seems the workplace is full of people who are suffering a mild form of allodoxaphobia. Or rather, it seems that society is suffering from said malady. I would say that is the state of a lot of our current leadership. Considering that we focus group everything to death it is amazing that there are people who are fearful of opinions. It seems that you can just pay off another focus group to come up with the opinion that you like. But as Abraham Lincoln noted: “public opinion in this country is everything.” But as Anthony Weiner demonstrates, with his NYC mayoral campaign, many in the public sphere still have a tin ear when it comes to others’ opinions. Some could argue that the reason for not paying so much attention to other’s opinions is that one can then be true to oneself. As Lincoln’s statement of over a century ago demonstrates, we live in a society obsessed with opinion. Perhaps then such a fear of other’s opinion is just a protective mechanism. However, here is a major problem for those suffering from allodoxaphobia (or the workplace version thereof), as noted by Marcus Aurelius “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”. So, those leaders that cannot take hearing or processing other people’s opinions are in big trouble as we cannot but be confronted with other’s opinions of the world and of ourselves. May as well curl up in a ball and go to your happy place. I do understand, however, the need to buffer oneself from other’s opinions, especially when those individuals are just plain old toxic. We must develop a keen eye for determining who is toxic and ensure that their opinion does not become our reality. I was once told that I was paranoid because I am careful as to who I confide in at the workplace. Mind you, this was a workplace emotional bleeder and gossiper. In other words, a toxic individual. In no way, should I let that person’s opinion become any part of my self-worth or understanding.
A work colleague recently engaged in a cool task. They were asked to put together a quick sentence or two for a news reporter about who they were. They had a difficult time coming up with a succinct yet memorable statement. They then instead texted friends asking them for how they would describe her. It takes guts to seek out other’s opinion of oneself. This task was then suggested to someone else to which she received the reply of “I already receive an annual review. That is more than enough.” A little allodoxaphobia? Considering that at least once a year everybody has to undergo a process whereby they sit and listen to a supposedly objective review of one’s abilities, perhaps it is a bit healthy to run away every once a while when an opinion-filled colleague heads your way. Why would I state that? Well, I am of the opinion that H.P. Lovecraft had it right when he noted that: “I am disillusioned enough to know that no man’s opinion on any subject is worth a damn unless backed up with enough genuine information to make him really know what he’s talking about”. Yup, I am not afraid of other’s opinions. I am not suffering from allodoxaphobia. I am just not afraid of data and facts as so many seem to be these days. So take a middle ground, don’t run away from informed opinions. But run like the wind from an uninformed one.
If you want an explanation of allodoxaphobia check out this youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8UpU5EhoFI