Attachment Styles at Work: The Unconscious Programming Affecting Your Work Life

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better you can do better.

Maya Angelou.


Are You Bringing Your Childhood to Work?

How delightful is it, that your workplace is made up of humans, bringing forth a multitude of different personalities and behaviours?

(Ok…there may have been a hint of sarcasm in that rhetorical question).

But have you ever stopped to think about the impact your earliest experiences as a child may be shaping your current experiences with work and your relationships at work?

While Attachment Theory has been studied extensively in developmental psychology literature, it has only come into widespread use in mainstream personality psychology very recently along with implications in a workplace context.

Research on adult Attachment Theory is guided by the assumption that the quality and type of connections we have at work (and other relationships) are closely related to attachment styles we formed as infants.


Attachment to Whaat?

 Attachment Theory was originally created by the work of John Bowlby and further expanded upon together with Mary Ainsworth around the 1950’s.

Essentially, the attachment styles are developed based on how we were emotionally responded to and comforted by our primary caregivers as a child and this can continue to shape how we relate to others in adulthood.

Although much of the research typically focuses on our relationship with parents, children and romantic partners, this subconscious programming might also be running the show at work, sabotaging your productivity or relationships and you may not even realise it.

Attachment theory primarily consists of 4 Styles of Attachment. There are slight variations to these styles however, Silvy Khoucasian M.A has defined the types as: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant-Dismissive & Avoidant-Fearful.

Below we have a brief description of these 4 styles. See if you can recognise any of these behaviours within yourself or those you work with.


Anxious Attachment

 Poor Anxious Attachment has a fear of upsetting others, so struggles to communicate their needs directly or will simply give up their needs to please others. That said, they usually require a lot of attention and want support more than the other styles.

Their nervous system is very sensitive and as such they are highly attuned to people who are close to them, often over analysing things, taking things personally and avoiding conflict.

Those with Anxious Attachment may also resort to game playing to get attention or reassurance.


Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment

Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment types are usually very self-reliant and usually downplay the importance of relationships. Their typical response to an argument, conflict, and other stressful situations is to become distant and aloof.

Avoidant attached people commonly find their greatest struggle to be a lack of emotion and usually do not think they need help or support. 


Avoidant-Fearful Attachment

 Although those with Avoidant-Fearful are usually more dependant in relationships than Avoidant-Dismissive, they strongly fear rejection and suffer from high anxiety.

At work, they may tend to spend most of their time in a state of being overwhelmed because they fear everything and feel very little power to do anything about their fears. They are also very scared of being vulnerable.

Secure Attachment

Those with a Secure Attachment style know they are capable and can trust fairly easily as they are confident that others will respond well to them. They do not operate from fear like the other styles.

They are attuned to the emotions of others and lead with cooperative and flexible behaviour. They also communicate upsets directly and have strong boundaries.

Because this type has good self-esteem, they don’t take things personally and aren’t reactive to criticism. Therefore, they don’t become defensive in conflicts. Instead, they are more open to problem-solving, compassion and curiosity.


Why Being Aware of Attachment Styles Matters

We all have something to learn about our attachment style and becoming aware of this theory and how it relates to us is the first step. To learn what your attachment style is, you can take a quiz by Dr Chris Fraley here.

Through research we know that people with Secure Attachment style, report having greater satisfaction in relationships. We are also learning through researchers who study the science of happiness such as Shawn Accor, that healthy connections with other human beings is a key contributor to long term happiness and physical wellbeing. 

Conversely, research suggests non-secure attachment styles are incompatible with fulfilling working relationships and positive work experience.

Although we are usually dominant in one attachment style, context and the person we are connecting with does make a difference to which attachment style/s can play out. As an example, if an employee has a supportive leader, they feel safe and can function fine, but if the leader is distant and unsupportive it can trigger Anxious Attachment creating stress and anxiety in the employee. As a result, productivity and work satisfaction will be reduced. 

In relationships we often see someone with an Anxious Attachment style being attracted to someone with an Avoidant style, often seeking out someone who has the aspects of ourselves that we are denying. All of this happening on an unconscious level of course!

At work, your attachment style can play out differently and may not be that obvious.


How You Play Out Attachment Styles at Work

At work, your attachment style can play out differently and may not be that obvious. As an example, someone who has Anxious Attachment style may constantly check emails and reply to any upset or conflict immediately to minimise distress. 

On the other hand, someone with Avoidant-Fearful may read an uncomfortable email and quickly divert their attention to another task, not dealing with the situation and being fearful about what they have made it mean e.g. I did something wrong, I am in trouble or someone is upset with me.

Different again, the Avoidant-Dismissive style often does not like discussing anything emotional at work and is often reluctant to participate in team building activities that seek to create connection through any form of vulnerability.  

Another key area we see attachment styles play out is within the realms of trust.  We know how fundamental trust is at work and our attachment style allows us to see (or not see) how trustworthy someone is. Our attachment style can also shape our ability to open up and allow ourselves to be vulnerable in interpersonal relationships in order to build trust.

If you are an employer, developing a compassionate understanding of these attachment styles may give you insight into the challenges that your employees face. By supporting each employee in their own attachment language, and understanding their varying sources of stress, you can contribute to the possibility of developing secure attachment.


Can we Change Our Attachment Style?

You can alter your style to be more or less secure depending upon experiences and conscious effort. To change your style to be more secure, you may choose to seek support such as therapy as well as seeking relationships with others who are capable of a Secure Attachment.

You can also learn more about attachment styles through experts on Attachment Theory such as Dr Diane Poole Heller, Silvy Khoucasian MA and Dr Chris Fraley

When I first became familiar with attachment theory, I immediately saw the connections between this theory of child development and my work as a connection cultivator for organisations.

Since that time, I have immersed myself in understanding those connections more deeply and integrating them into my professional and personal life.

It is wonderful to see more and more research being devoted to Attachment Theory in a workplace setting. We can now begin to adapt this framework into personality testing as a means to understand the personality of employee/leader and the effects our attachment has on workplace connections, job performance and job satisfaction.

Above all else, Attachment Theory shines a light on a subconscious part of our behaviour that we have the power to change in order to create more fulfilling, compassionate and healthy relationships with those close to us.

Once we know better we can do better :).

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