The benefits of applying attachment theory to your workforce

Attachment theory was originally developed as a way of understanding how children bond with their parents, but it also affords great insight into how we interact with colleagues and approach tasks in the workplace

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Attachment theory was originally developed in the mid-20th century as a framework for understanding how children respond to their parents

The impact that our upbringing has on the way that we approach relationships is well documented in the world of psychology. From cognitive development to social learning, a cornucopia of scientists have worked over the years to identify all the ways our interactions with our immediate family and childhood environment affect our adult lives.

Attachment theory is one such example. It was originally developed in the mid-20th century as a framework for understanding how children respond to their parents, but in the late 1980s, psychologists Cindy Hazer and Philip Shaver posited that the idea could be extended to explain all kinds of adult relationships too, from romantic partnerships to close friendships.

“In every personal relationship we engage in, we bring learned expectations from childhood and past encounters,” explained Natalie Cawley, a counselling psychologist within the UK’s NHS. Recent research has extended the theory further, with psychologists now beginning to explore how it shapes our interactions in the workplace, as well as our reactions to certain responsibilities.

Contrasting approaches
There are four attachment ‘styles’, which were first observed in adults by two psychologists, Kim Bartholomew and Leonard Horowitz, in 1991. Those that identify with the first style, ‘secure’, tend to “have a more stable sense of self, because as children, they experienced the world as a safe place to be”, Cawley explained.

“These adults are more likely to be open to relationships and new experiences, because they’ve learned that [these advances] are unlikely to be met with rejection or obstacles.” In a workplace environment, someone who is secure in their attachment will be comfortable managing their own time and won’t hesitate to ask for help when they need it, rather than battling obdurately through something they are finding particularly challenging.

Psychologists are beginning to explore how attachment theory shapes our interactions in the workplace, as well as our reactions to certain responsibilities

While secure people have the least work to do in terms of changing their attachment style, that doesn’t mean that they can simply sit back and relax. “They may have a more relational style when it comes to leadership, but may also find they transfer their own experiences onto others in an authority scenario,” Cawley said. For this reason, it’s important for secure people to periodically evaluate and ask for feedback to ensure that any issues that crop up can be dealt with swiftly. Remaining aware is a significant part of security, as any businessperson will know, and this extends to relationships as much as it does to cybersecurity or staff management.

The second style, ‘anxious-preoccupied’, describes someone who “feels less certain about themselves” and “might be quite preoccupied with what other people think and feel about them”, according to Cawley. Those who identify with this style might also come across as defensive or guarded, due to the anxious element.

This type of attachment can be detrimental to a work-life balance, as it can lead to behaviours such as obsessively checking emails or being unable to switch off outside of working hours due to concerns over performance. “Some people with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style might place all their value in their performance, and so they might tie performance to their sense of self or self-esteem in terms of how others perceive them,” Cawley told European CEO.

To break free of this attachment style, the first step is cultivating a sense of self-worth. It’s easier said than done, but small steps – such as repeating positive affirmations to oneself throughout the day – can help. Similarly, breaking free of the anxiety-driven thought spiral is vital, but must be done through strategies for self-reassurance rather than seeking validation from colleagues.

Breaking the cycle

The third attachment style, ‘dismissive-avoidant’, is effectively the inverse of the anxious-preoccupied type, in that it describes someone who holds themselves in high esteem, but pays little mind to others. These people have an extremely high level of independence, which can be perceived as arrogance, coldness, and even an attempt to avoid attachment altogether. “They also might struggle to emotionally regulate, so they might struggle with feedback or changes in the workplace,” Cawley explained.

Those who identify with this attachment style may become martyrs to their workload. “They [will] be less able to acknowledge their own boundaries, so they wouldn’t be readily able to ask for support when they need it,” Cawley said. “They’d rather fiercely and independently keep going at something rather than asking for help.”

It’s important to note that a person’s attachment style is not predetermined; it’s a product of many factors, and can change over time

This is the first place to start in terms of adjusting behaviours – the people classified in this group must work to foster trust with other team members, and recognise that diversity of ideas is not just inevitable, but vital in achieving the best results. “They could also do some reality testing, to see how they tolerate distress when asking for feedback or support,” Cawley added.

The fourth and final attachment style, ‘fearful-avoidant’, is the most challenging of all to overcome, as those who fall into this pattern tend to view both themselves and others around them in a negative light. “They’re quite defended, so they would be unlikely to welcome working with others or to develop interpersonal relationships, which might be beneficial in terms of stress,” Cawley said. “They’re unlikely to easily form allies, which can be useful at work.”

Breaking this cycle of behaviour requires a multilateral approach. First, this group of people should work to recognise the value in their own work by rewarding themselves for completing a task to the best of their abilities. Second, they should challenge their immediate presumptions about others.

“If they observe that others are struggling or having difficulties, maybe they could start by offering them some support and seeing how they can experience that,” Cawley said. “Thinking about roles at work can also be useful.” People with this attachment style may find management roles where they are expected to offer pastoral care challenging, so it may be that they need to move into different positions where this is not expected of them.

Changing behaviours

It’s important to note that a person’s attachment style is not predetermined; it’s a product of many factors, such as upbringing, education and personal attitude, and can change over time. Similarly, it is not a cross to bear, in that it is possible to change one’s attachment style. “In adulthood, if you have long-standing schemas, it becomes more difficult to then be fluid or changeable,” Cawley said. “But I think if you are introspective and willing to look at your own transference, then you can go some way to making changes.”

Taking control of the way we approach both tasks and colleagues is an active choice, and can be a job in itself. However, it can also have a positive impact on our own lives by improving the way we relate to others. “Harnessing your attachment style can [help] you empathise more and better attune to other people,” Cawley explained.

“A lot of people tend to feel quite self-conscious about the way they relate to others, but understanding the complexities of how people relate interpersonally and the architecture of [their attachment style] can help us to be more accepting of their behaviours or their feedback.” Fostering this recognition and tolerance can, in turn, make us all better leaders, better employees, and help us to achieve a more fruitful work-life balance.