All employees possess unique strengths and weaknesses. Attachment styles represent an underlying vulnerability that fundamentally influences how individual employees form bonds within the workplace. The understanding and maintenance of (how we care for) our attachment styles is a cornerstone of a productive, healthy organization. Ignoring the role attachment styles play in an organization’s establishment is a serious oversight and a potential path to the stressors that can lead to burnout and, ultimately resignation — with or without a global pandemic.
Workplace stress is firmly entrenched within the social context of an organization and its culture. At the core, interpersonal attachment styles dictate an individual’s willingness to engage within this social context: the styles reflect the degree of trust that employees are willing to place in leaders and coworkers, and by extension define the social conditions in which a worker will suffer or thrive. Whereas some employees will find solace in supportive workplace relationships, others will find their stresses worsened by interactions that fail to provide the right form of support for that individual employee. This basic lack of understanding will inadvertently weaken workplace bonds that might otherwise protect vulnerable employees from the slippery slope of workplace stressors.
There are four essential attachment styles:
Individuals with an insecure (fearful) attachment style exhibit a fundamental inability to fully trust others for fear of being let down. This decreased trust can manifest as constant worrying that blocks the development of a meaningful leader-employee connection. This vulnerability can reduce job satisfaction and significantly increase the risk of the development of stressors consistent with burnout. Insecurely attached employees are therefore particularly vulnerable because they shoulder a greater amount of stress simply to participate within the social context of an organization. Any additional external stressor is simply throwing fuel onto the fire.
In the preoccupied (distracted) individual, there is typically an intense level of trust based on the desire for connection to organizational leadership or the connection toward a single leader. This connectivity can be a positive force for managing workplace stressors. However, it can also result in a level of unhealthy dependence on others. It creates an inherently risky scenario in that the preoccupied (distracted) individual needs to maintain the connection to or relationship with others for optimal workplace performance and productivity.
In the dismissive (autonomous) employee, there is a high level of independence and a strong preference for self-sufficiency. This attachment style often mimics a lack of trust that manifests in the form of withdrawal, both actual and perceived. This preference can cause the individual to intentionally (or even unintentionally) suppress negative emotions. Manipulating emotions is a recipe for the negative impact of workplace stressors and potentially burnout — made worse by the fact that dismissive (autonomous) individuals often deprive themselves of the social support that might otherwise alleviate the negative effects of suppression.
Even those with a secure (stable) attachment style have vulnerability. Secure (stable) followers are vulnerable in the face of corporate upheaval precisely due to their willingness to form workplace relationships and place trust in their organization. Should this trust be broken, or relationships fractured, those with secure attachment styles will feel the repercussions most deeply, potentially souring their willingness to invest their energy into their job. In a similar vein, securely attached leaders seem appealing because they typically do not struggle to establish trusting and transformational relationships with secure followers. However, they lack a firsthand understanding of the additional stresses experienced by followers of other attachment styles, and subsequently may not be aware of how their own behaviors aggravate this stress. Without accounting for the characteristics preventing other attachment style colleagues from fully engaging with others in the organization, secure leaders may leave these individuals unsupported without even realizing it. The complexity of the Secure (stable) attachment style can be best represented using sub-categories to differentiate responses to followers.
The criticality of understanding relationships at work has not gone unnoticed, but ultimately is not yet properly understood or even recognized. Brené Brown’s recent novel, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Human Connection in the Language of Human Experience provides a deep dive into how emotions influence behavior and relationship building in the workplace, but fails to name the overarching instinctual mechanisms that are deeply rooted in our biology.
Attachment styles are the palettes that our emotions are painted from, and as such, any attempt to forge deeper workplace connections without understanding how attachment styles affect the topography of our psyches is wasted. The challenge is to better understand attachment styles as a basic function of understanding our colleagues, employees, managers, leaders, etc. within our workplace. We have three suggestions on where to begin.
- Create the Awareness: Be aware that attachment styles exist and are an important combination of our biology and our life experience.
- Define the Premise: Define the basic idea such that the members of the organization gain an appreciation for this new knowledge.
- Embrace the Differences: Support the development of an organizational-wide perception of attachment styles that values our unique differences.
All employees possess unique weaknesses and strengths. Attachment styles represent an underlying vulnerability that fundamentally influences how employees form bonds within the workplace. These relationships are a cornerstone of a productive, healthy organization, and ignoring the role attachment styles play in their establishment is a serious oversight of a potential path to increased workplace stressors—with or without a global pandemic. Ultimately, failing to account for attachment styles at work is failing to adequately protect employees from workplace stressors that will result in behaviors that can lead to negative workplace conditions such as burnout.
About the author
Dr. Victoria M. Grady is the President of PivotPoint. She directs the MSM Graduate Program, is on the faculty of George Mason University, and is the People and Change Professor in Residence at Dixon Hughes Goodman (DHG). She’s an expert on organizational change, working with public and private agencies across the globe. Along with Patrick McCreesh, Ph.D., she’s the author of Stuck: How to Win at Work by Understanding Loss. Vulnerability
By Victoria Grady with Rachel Wittman