[December 27, 2013] Phobias are unusual for a leadership topic. Yet, people do have fears (e.g., speaking in public, heights, falling) and it can in some cases affect job performance and threaten organizational missions. Hidden phobias can be especially difficult to uncover and resolve.
On several occasions I ran across Soldiers who had a phobia that caused problems with their military unit. In one case, our unit had an officer (a Major with over 10 years of service) who had a phobia about dentists (i.e., dentophobia).
The unit was preparing to deploy into combat and tracked very closely the attendance at all required medical appointments, equipping, and training events. This Major continued to show up missing at required dental appointments. There were always excuses given; all seemed for legitimate reasons to miss the scheduled time. In the end, it took a direct confrontation for the officer to admit that he had an unusual fear of dentists.
The problem was that the officer had gone for 10 years before this problem finally manifested itself and only after meticulous tracking by the unit and in the end a confrontation with the officer. Going into a combat environment with dental problems would have been trouble for all concerned. Soon after, the officer resigned from the military.
Other hidden phobia examples that impacted unit missions were: fear of the night (an Infantry officer), fear of dirt/germs (a Quartermaster officer), fear of dogs and fear of enclosed spaces (several Soldiers).
These examples are not that unusual. Phobias are frequently hidden from view because that employee knows their phobia might negatively affect job performance, potential for promotion, other employees, and organizational effectiveness. The person will have built complex protective behaviors around the phobia making it very difficult to detect.
Leaders should be aware of this problem. It is more widespread than one would think and resolving the problem can take more effort than expected.