One of the first patterns you see when working in human resources and dealing with employee relation situations is that over half of the issues stem from employees not being satisfied with their working relationship with their boss. Complaints range from dislike of micro-managers to working for someone who is so distant that a relationship never forms. I’ve found that as I’ve worked with many executives over the last 16 years, one thing stands out…. if there is not a match in style between the leader and the subordinate, ultimately that working relationship will suffer. Over time, either the employee will become dissatisfied and leave the company, the leader will not be satisfied with the employee and performance will suffer, or both people stay in the relationship and the department never reaches it’s full productivity potential.
While reading an article in Scientific American Mind on Attachment Theory, it struck me that although they were focusing on romantic relationships, the theory plays out in our work relationships as well. Attachment Theory and the corresponding styles was first discovered by Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist. Her work with a British researcher, John Bowlby, resulted in the idea that people who have a strong attachment to others, specifically their caregivers, are more likely to survive. The three types of attachment are:
- Secure– This person has a solid base and is able to explore their environment. They’re more likely to learn and thrive and are comfortable with intimacy.
- Anxious– This person is overly worried about where the other person (ie. parent, romantic partner or boss) is and what they are doing. By being preoccupied with that, they are not easily able to focus their attention on the situation at hand.
- Avoidant– This person believes that if they allow a close, trusting relationship to form, they will lose their independence. They try to minimize closeness in their relationships and keep other people at arms length.
This can have a huge impact in the workplace.
If there is a mis-match of the boss’ attachment style and yours and you do not recognize it, your relationship may never see success. One or both of you will be disappointed in the other person. This disappointment will cause friction over time if not addressed and eventually, something has to give. Recognizing your own attachment style can help you in your relationships because then you can make adjustments to aid in bridging the gap. According to the article authors, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F.Heller, “attachment principles teach us that most men and women are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, they usually turn their attention outward. This result is sometimes referred to in the literature as the ‘dependency paradox’: the more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more indpendent and creative they become.”
As we help leaders, or as we review our own leadership style, the message is clear. We need to help stack the deck by working toward having a more secure and trusting relationship with our boss. This is where HR can really help an employee focus efforts on strategies to reach that goal instead of focusing on all the problems in the working relationship.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these attachment styles and how you’ve seen relationships play out in the workplace. What has worked and what hasn’t?