Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant Attachment Styles at Work

Have you ever had a boss who you admired? Someone who you felt loyal to, who made you feel part of the team, and who made you motivated to put forth extra effort and achieve more? What were the characteristics of that person? Chances are that they (a) provided a consistently warm, stable and supportive environment and (b) held high expectations for achievement while providing you with the resources and coaching to get the job done. If you fell short of expectations, you were probably coached on how to do better next time without being shamed and ridiculed.

On the opposite end of the continuum, have you ever had a boss who you considered callus and demeaning? Someone who made no effort to hide that they just don’t care? Someone who has very high expectations and demands excellence but does not provide a warm, stable, and supportive environment?

Or, have you had a boss who was demanding and dictatorial, who had a strong need to be liked and admired and expressed strong disapproval toward others while at the same time seeming anxious and unsure of him/herself?

If you have had bosses like these (secure, dismissing/avoidant, preoccupied/anxious), then you have seen the impacts of attachment styles at work. Attachment styles are not just about romantic relationships. These styles reflect deep personality dispositions…the building blocks on which thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships are founded.

A recent article I published in the Journal of Personality Assessment with my colleague Jay Chaffin shows that bosses’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward those who work for them are highly correlated with both romantic attachment styles and attachment to people in general. Leaders’ attachment behaviors toward their followers function the same as attachment styles to people outside of work.

In our research, we took a romantic attachment scale (the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale) and reworded the items to refer to workers instead of romantic partners. We administered these items and a battery of other personality measures to 97 Fortune 500 C-Suite executives. Here are a couple of examples of the items:

1.       I get uncomfortable when my direct reports want to share their feelings with me.

2.       I need reassurance that I am respected and valued by my direct reports.

Our results indicate that executives who are more anxiously attached worry more about their relationships and feel that they need the approval of others, including the people who work for them. They are less likely to be able to effectively manage stress or suppress their impulses. They also are likely to have some difficulty with critical thinking and may be somewhat inflexible in their approaches to solving problems. They are likely to be less emotionally stable, have higher levels of trait anxiety, and be somewhat vulnerable, prone to depression, and short on self-discipline.

Executives who are more avoidant, in contrast, are not comfortable being emotionally close with their followers and prefer to put achievement ahead of relationships. They are not likely to seek out approval or worry about their interpersonal relationships. They report lower levels of emotional self-awareness and may struggle with maintaining positive relationships, being empathic, or expressing an interest in social responsibility. They are likely to be somewhat introverted, not particularly assertive, and may have difficulty experiencing positive emotions or expressing their feelings or warmth toward others.

Of course, leaders with fearful styles will be a mixture of the avoidant and anxious traits, and those with secure styles will score low (which is a good thing) on most of the descriptors presented in the two paragraphs above. Many bosses and leaders will have secure styles because the secure style enables them to be warm, available, and supportive, while also maintaining high standards both for themselves and others.

But research shows that those with dismissing/avoidant styles are also over represented (relative to their proportion in the general population) among the ranks of leaders. This is because our society generally values their hard-charging, goal directed, charismatic attitudes. But their charisma can be self-serving, and research has shown that they may put achievement ahead of the welfare of their teams. In addition, people with anxious styles may actually become more anxious and depressed under their leadership.

So, you are sitting there at work reading my blog hoping your boss doesn’t notice. What do you do?

1.       Accept that you can be a positive influence on your boss. Being a leader isn’t necessarily about position. It is about intentionally influencing other people to move in a positive direction.

2.       Identify your boss’s attachment style. It isn’t that difficult. Read descriptions of the secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful styles here and see if you can pick one out.

3.       Realize that the way your boss interacts with you may have just as much to do with his/her attachment style as it does with anything about you. This realization can help you take negative interactions less personally and enable you to think clearly and meaningfully contribute when under stress.

4.       Ask yourself: Given my boss’s attachment style, how can I behave in a way that will help her/him be more effective in leading me and our team?

If your boss has a dismissing/avoidant style, realize that anxious people are likely to make him/her more activated. This activation may foster more harsh reactions from the boss toward anxious followers. In other words, if you are emotionally activated and upset about something, cool down and gather yourself before you go into your boss’s office to tell her/him what you think. In helping your dismissing leader make good decisions, be sure to clearly present data (they love data) in an organized way and keep your feelings out of it.

If your boss has a preoccupied/anxious style, be sure to give both verbal and non-verbal feedback to him/her when you are in the role of listener. Nothing activates a preoccupied/anxious boss more than talking to a follower who shows no facial expression. It makes them anxious and they may get angry or punitive in response.

But…above all…know your own attachment style and how you are likely to be activated by attachment figures (that would include bosses who hold sway over much of your well-being at work) with the various styles. Take responsibility for your own emotions and behaviors. Now that you are aware of your style and how it pulls you to think and feel in various circumstances, you can choose to override it, be your best, and lead others (even your boss) with intent.

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