Attachment theory was first proposed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby as a descriptive and explanatory framework for interpersonal relationships.
In recent studies this theory has been applied in order to understand employees’ cognitive processes and the effect of these processes on workplace engagement. In other words, how the individual’s attachment style affects the amount of effort, energy, and exploration the individual is capable of employing to support the organization.
An individual’s lifelong experiences form the expectations, attitudes, and behaviors that he or she is likely to exhibit in the workplace.
In responding to workplace stress, individuals are likely to exhibit behaviors that define their attachment style and how they seek support from the organization. These behaviors may be negative and result in withdrawal and absenteeism or they may be positive and result in asking for the required help or support.
Employees, leaders or business owners with a secure attachment style are able to live in the present unimpaired by troubles from the past or worries about the future.
Employees, leaders or business owners with an insecure attachment style seem to be unable to bring themselves fully into the workplace. They allow the past to affect their thinking and actions. They may avoid altogether acknowledging the importance of workplace engagement.
Five areas most likely to be affected by attachment style:
1. Leadership – the ability to lead depends on an ability to be flexible, trust others, explore new territories for the business and introduce change if necessary. Secure individuals approach these duties with the belief that whatever is occurring, they have the capacity to understand, adapt and do what is necessary to support the organization.
Insecurely attached individuals possess defensive strategies that interfere with flexibility and new learning, undermining their own success. Understanding that this particular difficulty comes from an attachment style and not an overall defect allows room for correction.
2. Communication is another area where attachment style will create problems. Securely attached people are able to communicate openly without fear of ridicule or disagreement. If they come upon opposition they are able to discuss and handle it, whether in personal relationships or with employees. Their overall belief is that anything can be handled if discussed openly.
Insecurely attached individuals are typically guarded and fearful of sharing their thoughts. This stunts growth, creativity and overall success. They will typically run from a problem with the thought that everything is going to turn out poorly anyway.
3. Trust is a critical topic in the attachment world as it is in business. At some point in time trust becomes necessary in order to grow. The sharing of company information, delegating tasks to increase productivity and relying on team members to perform are examples of situations that require trust.
Securely attached people have no problem with these concepts. Insecurely attached individuals struggle horribly with them. They tend to approach things with mistrust in all of the above arenas. When consumed with mistrust, energies are not available to be productive.
Being securely attached doesn’t guarantee that one won’t get burned at some point by someone, it just means time isn’t wasted thinking about it before it happens. Life is not conducted as if betrayal is imminent.
4. Empowerment is essential within a business. Securely attached individuals empower themselves with the belief they can handle problems. Securely attached bosses share credit and can empower others as they have the confidence that the employee will rise to the occasion. Good leaders do this effortlessly.
Insecurely attached bosses don’t empower as they fear the other person will appear smarter or better somehow. They believe the employee will seek to take over or undermine them.
Not that this can’t happen if one possesses a securely attached style, but just like with trust, the difference is all decisions are not based on this belief.
5. Commitment – the type of attachment thinking style one has affects this most of all. How much of an individual is made available to the workplace? An individual with an insecure attachment style may be unconsciously using defensive strategies designed to protect themselves from actually becoming more engaged. Engagement can equal rejection or hurt and this is exactly what an insecurely attached person seeks to avoid.
Secure individuals are not afraid to commit, believing that things can last a lifetime or as long as desired. Making long range plans, goals and growth decisions come easily.
Insecurely attached individuals tend to see things as short term and therefore tend to get more caught up in short term goals, hindering their own growth. This can apply to business plans, employees and financial commitments. To them a year can seem like a lifetime whereas a securely attached person sees a year in business as a small blip on the screen. They believe they are going to be around for a while.
Understanding where an employee or leader stands in these areas and where improvement can be gained is not to be overlooked in a development plan. Attachment theory is well known throughout the world of Professional Psychology, and applying it to workplace theory is innovative as well as exhibits an understanding and caring of the workings of an employees’ emotional world, a feature highly prized in a healthy organizational culture.
A better understanding of the employees’ cognitive processes and behaviors — supplied by attachment theory — will be useful in designing successful programs and helping organizations to create an overall environment that raises the level of workplace engagement.