Here’s What We Know About Attachment Styles in the Workplace

Attachment in the workplace

Our attachment style can affect the way we function and perform in the workplace. This is mainly because our work environments include social relationships and social dynamics. For example, think about your job for a moment. Did your colleagues come to mind? Did your boss show up, too?

Do you struggle with issues at work? This might be due to your attachment style.

When we hear the word “attachment,” the first association that probably comes to mind is relationships. When people think about relationships, this normally refers to intimate relationships, parent-child relationships, or friendships. However, attachment patterns can impact our daily lives beyond our family or intimate relationships.

How Much Do We Know About Attachment Styles in the Workplace?

Some of the first researchers who applied John Bowlby’s attachment theory to social dynamics in the workplace were Hazan and Shaver (1990). They discovered that the same attachment dynamics (which are discussed in the contexts of intimate and family relationships) were evident in people’s relationships with coworkers and leaders.

Even though this topic has not been extensively researched yet, a study by Yip and colleagues reported the trend that “The influence of attachment theory on organizational scholarship is growing, with more articles published on the subject in the past 5 years than the preceding 25 years combined” (p.1).

In the following sections, we will discuss some of the central findings in the field:

  • Secure attachment in both employees and leaders tends to have many benefits in the workplace.
  • Insecure attachment styles in both leaders and employees can lead to difficulties and problems in the workplace.
  • Nevertheless, having an insecure attachment style (as an employee) can also have a positive side.

A Brief Intro to Attachment Theory and the Four Attachment Styles

According to John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory, attachment begins as soon as a baby is born. The helpless baby relies on its primary caregivers for care, support, and safety.

When parents are attuned to the child and meet his or her physiological and emotional needs, the child is able to form a secure bond with them. Yet, if the baby perceives that his or her needs are not met by the attachment figures, he or she becomes insecurely attached.

This first relationship that the baby has serves as a template for how future relationships form and function. Consequently, the template that each of us formed in early childhood continues to affect our social interactions as adults. Were you able to build a secure bond with your caregivers early in life? If yes, you would be able to feel safe and comfortable in social contexts later on.

In contrast, if we – as children – perceived that our needs cannot and will not be met by others (especially, the ones closest to us), we are likely to exhibit attachment issues throughout our lives. One way to distinguish between attachment patterns is to contrast secure and insecure attachment.

Insecure attachment has three main types: Anxious / Preoccupied, Avoidant / Dismissive and Disorganized.

The anxious (or preoccupied) type tends to worry extensively about relationships. People with this attachment style tend to be insecure about themselves, have low self-esteem, and have the need to be in relationships and rely on others. Such individuals are often clingy and needy, they analyze and overthink the meaning behind what others say and do, and they are usually anxious and stressed about how they are perceived.

The avoidant (or dismissive) type is independent, confident, and self-sufficient – at least that’s how they appear to be. People with this attachment style do not want or need to rely on others: they want to be in control. Such individuals can be distant and aloof in relationships: they are unlikely to open up to others, especially when it comes to expressing private thoughts or emotions.

The disorganized type is sort of a mix between the other two insecure attachment styles. Individuals with this pattern tend to switch between anxious and avoidant behaviors. This often makes it difficult for people around them to predict how their disorganized friend, child, or intimate partner will act: they never know what’s coming next.

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How Does Your Attachment Style Affect You as an Employee?

Anxious Attachment in the Workplace

According to research, having an anxious attachment style can result in personal and interpersonal struggles in the workplace. These issues usually stem from low self-esteem and high levels of insecurity, worry, and self-doubt. As a result, the anxious employee might constantly seek approval from their colleagues.

People with anxious attachment might invest a lot in interpersonal relationships at work. They may also try hard to be liked by everyone, and conform to the group’s wishes in order to avoid confrontation.

Anxious individuals also exhibit strong fear of negative feedback, which could be harmful to the already negative view of the self. So, fitting into the group, being liked by everyone, and receiving appreciation and praise for their work are priorities for the anxious employee.

The constant need for approval can cause the anxious employee to become clingy and needy. They might have unrealistic expectations and demands and thus overwhelm their colleagues or supervisors and cause them to distance themselves. The anxiously attached employee might exhibit an inability to work on their own and rely heavily on the team to finish their work.

The interpersonal stress that anxious individuals experience at work might also have a negative impact on the way they feel about their jobs. Such employees might feel under-appreciated and thus dissatisfied with their occupation. They have a higher risk of burnout episodes and exhibit more counterproductive work behavior and turnover intentions.

Potential difficulties of colleagues with anxious attachment

  • Preoccupation with acceptance from the group and seeking approval [1, 2]
  • Strong fear of rejection and negative evaluation [3]
  • Conformity to group wishes [1]
  • Overwhelming desire for interpersonal closeness & investment in social relationships [3, 4]
  • Negative expectations regarding the leader’s behavior [5, 6]
  • Less ability to work independently and autonomously & over-reliance on the supervisor/leader [3, 7]
  • Hypersensitivity to feedback [8]
  • Feeling under-appreciated and dissatisfied [9]
  • Higher burnout levels [10]
  • Counterproductive work behavior and turnover intentions [11]

The pros of having anxious attachment at work

In several of his research papers, Ein-Dor has demonstrated various perks of having anxiously attached employees in the team. Due to their hyper-vigilance (extreme sensitivity and alertness to the surroundings), individuals with an anxious attachment style might be superheroes when it comes to detecting threats, risks, and deceit.

Furthermore, because of their need to be accepted and approved by the group and the leaders, the anxious employee is often highly self-reflective and aware of their own shortcomings and weak spots. Consequently, they constantly seek ways to improve themselves and their performance, and thus become better at their jobs and strengthen their skills.

Last but not least, the anxious employee is no trouble-maker. Due to their desire to belong in the group and be seen positively, these individuals are likely to conform to the prevailing wishes of the workgroup and, therefore, create less friction in the workplace.

Superpowers of employees with anxious attachment

  • Better in detecting and responding to risks [12, 13]
  • More accurate in detecting deceit [14]
  • Create less friction in the workplace [1]
  • More alert to their own potential deficiencies and hyper‐vigilant about seeking ways to improve [15] → a positive effect on performance [8]
Anxious Attachment in the workplace

Avoidant Attachment Style in the Workplace

Looking at the existing research, one thing becomes evident: the avoidant employee is not the social type at work. They do not seek closeness with colleagues or leaders and do not rely on social support.

Avoidant individuals might even have a negative perception of the people in their work environments, including the boss. They tend to view group activities as unchallenging and beneath their level and exhibit an overall distrust towards others.

People with an avoidant attachment style prefer to work on their own. Sometimes, they might use work as an excuse to socialize with the group. They don’t want to establish strong bonds with co-workers and tend to put independence at the top of their priorities.

A potential threat to the atmosphere in the workplace is that avoidant employees might be resistant to leadership, critical to their supervisors or leaders, and unlikely to conform to the group. For these reasons, unlike anxious employees, avoidant individuals might be, to some extent, ‘troublemakers’ in the workplace.

Potential difficulties of having an avoidant colleague

  • Less positivity and more negative emotions [1]
  • Avoid interpersonal closeness and group tasks; prefer to work alone [2, 3, 7, 16]
  • Distant; use work commitment to avoid socializing [3, 16]
  • Negative view of and criticism towards the leader [17]
  • Resistant to leadership [5] and new information (when forming judgments) [18]
  • Distrust towards others in general [7] and towards the leader [19]
  • Seek less support from others [20]
  • Not conforming to groups wishes [1]

An avoidant colleague on your team can definitely have strong benefits

Even if the avoidant employee can sometimes be a ‘lone wolf’, they could still be a great asset to the group. According to Lavy, Bareli, and Ein-Dor (2014), avoidant employees can be superheroes when it comes to reacting quickly, effectively, and without hesitation – especially in threatening and dangerous situations. They can detect threats quickly and deal with danger efficiently.

People with an avoidant attachment style are usually the quickest to act. They can also contribute to the productivity and overall focus of the group. When a deadline is upcoming, they are the most likely to get the job done.

Furthermore, the avoidant colleague prefers to work independently and is good at it. They do not need extensive supervision or ‘babysitting’ in order to complete their tasks.

Superpowers of colleagues with an Avoidant Attachment Style 

  • Work well independently [2]
  • Better capacity to sustain a focus on the tasks at hand and to finish their work [2]
  • The quickest to act in times of danger (effectively, without hesitation) [2]
  • Promote focusing on the task and result orientation in the workplace [2]
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment in the Workplace

Secure Attachment in the Workplace

In general, secure attachment has many benefits in all types of social contexts, including the work environment. Secure employees tend to have it easier when it comes to interpersonal relationships at work – be it with colleagues, supervisors, or leaders. Securely attached employees are comfortable with and good at forming strong bonds, and others in the workplace generally perceive them as valuable group members [21].

Securely attached employees are characterized as the “least likely to put off work, least likely to have difficulty completing tasks, and least likely to fear failure and rejection from coworkers” [3, p. 275]. They were also found to be more likely to show trust towards and have positive perceptions of the leaders and their intentions [22].

Employees with a secure attachment style exhibit high satisfaction with their job, working conditions and coworkers [3]. Such individuals also report better well-being and fewer symptoms of illness (physical and mental), as compared to insecurely attached employees [3].

Benefits of having a colleague with secure attachment

  • Comfortable with and good at forming strong bonds [21]
  • Colleagues generally perceive them as valuable group members [21]
  • Are least likely to put off work [3]
  • Least likely to have difficulty completing tasks [3]
  • Least likely to fear failure and rejection from coworkers [3]
  • More likely to show trust towards the leaders and their intentions [22]
  • Exhibit high satisfaction with their job, working conditions and coworkers [3]
  • Better well-being and fewer symptoms of illness (physical and mental) [3]
Secure Attachment in the Workplace

How Does Your Attachment Style Affect You as a Leader in the Workplace?

Man moving a chess piece

So far, you have seen that attachment styles might be able to predict or explain (at least to some extent) how employees act and feel in the workplace. Interestingly, attachment styles also play a role in determining who makes a good leader.

Securely attached individuals make the best leaders because they can sustain their focus on work objectives and get the job done and still be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others [23]. Secure leaders are believed to show concern and care about their employees’ well-being and development [24].

As a boss, being attuned to the needs of your team can be quite beneficial to the overall work environment. Inconsistent support on the side of the boss can result in the activation of the attachment system in employees.

As a result of inconsistent leader support, the anxious employee can become more clingy and preoccupied with seeking attention; and the avoidant employee can become more distant and aloof towards the leader [15]. In both cases, insensitivity from the leader can case counter-productivity on the side of employees.

In contrast to leaders with a secure attachment style, avoidant leaders are perceived as insensitive and less available, which might also cause their employees to experience a decrease in well-being over time [17].

When it comes to individuals with an anxious attachment style, research has shown that they are less likely to develop the independence necessary to be a strong leader [1].

What About Disorganized Attachment Style?

As you might have noticed, this blog post is coming to an end, and we still haven’t talked about that group of individuals who have a disorganized attachment style. Why?

Unfortunately, the existing research has not focused on this type of attachment, probably because it incorporates both the anxious and the avoidant attachment style in it.

If an individual has disorganized attachment, they are likely to identify with the characteristics for both anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Usually, the disorganized individual will switch between high anxiety and high avoidance. Therefore, their behavior in the workplace might be ambiguous and contradictory.

Conclusion & Take-Home Message

Adults at the workplace holding a meeting

Even though applying attachment theory to the context of the workplace is a relatively new topic of interest, research on the matter is growing rapidly. Attachment styles might have a strong potential to explain and predict one’s role and experience in the workplace.

They might also predict the social dynamics and the quality of leadership in a company. In general, secure attachment has a lot of benefits – both for leaders and for employees. Still, people with insecure attachment bring along their own superpowers.

According to Lavy, Bareli, and Ein-Dor (2014), as a company leader, it’s best to have a heterogeneous work team – a team that is composed of secure, avoidant and anxious individuals. There is a certain advantage to having insecure individuals on your team. Anxious employees contribute by helping maintain group cohesion and detecting risks. While avoidant employees sustain better focus on the tasks at hand and get the job done. The authors conclude that heterogeneity in the team leads to better overall performance.

Despite that, it’s important to highlight that secure colleagues make the best leaders and the healthiest and most satisfied employees. If you or someone you love struggles with issues at work that you recognized in this post, this might be due to insecure attachment patterns.

The good news is that attachment styles can change. Even though it takes time and effort, you can develop secure attachment and reap all the benefits.

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