Patterns In the Workplace: How attachment style impacts our work relationships

Patterns In the Workplace: How attachment style impacts our work relationships

Research estimates that about 95% of our brain activity is unconscious. This includes habits, patterns, automatic body function, creativity, emotions, personality, beliefs and values, cognitive biases, and long-term memory.  Whew… that’s quite a list.  So to think that employees will behave in the workplace without bringing this level of unconscious bias to the workplace is naive.

One of the patterns that often impact work relationship on an unconscious level is Attachment theory. Attachment theory has traditionally been discussed in relation to romantic relationships, but in actuality, our attachment style impacts all our relationships, friends, family, romantic, and co-workers alike.  The more we understand our behavior patterns in the workplace, the more we can positively impact the strategic results our company expects from our leadership role. Self-awareness on why we do what we do is step one. So, lets’ bridge the gap between workplace relationships and attachment theory.

During childhood we learn lessons about how safe the world is from our caregiver’s ability to meet our physical and emotional needs for safety. Do we get picked up and comforted when we cry? Do we get fed when we are hungry? Are our emotions ok to feel or are we shamed for having them? How safe does the world feel when our caregivers fight or have discord in the home? Is it safe to explore the world around us or do we find the world brings us painful experiences? How abandoned do we feel at times by our caregivers? Every home has a combination of safety and physical/emotional fear. The degree and extent to which we live in either condition as a child greatly impacts how secure or insecure, we feel in our environment.  When we have experiences of insecurity, we develop coping strategies to emotionally survive them. These strategies and coping skills stay with us in our subconscious mind and they become the unconscious lens we see through in our adult life as we build relationships with those around us. Our programming can change over time, but it takes work to rewire our beliefs and perceptions about relationships and learn new coping skills when faced with communication and trust challenges.

As individuals we take these patterns into our workplace relationships too. They are the same rules we use to relate to colleagues, co-workers, supervisors, team members, employees, vendors, clients, etc. These patterns of relating to others around us play a major role in our reactions to workplace drama, politics, team dynamics, leadership and communication styles.

By understanding our attachment style, we can become a more effective leader in the workplace.

So what’s your Attachment Style?

Attachment falls into two primary categories- secure or insecure.  Insecure attachment is broken into 3 sub-categories: anxious/preoccupied, fearful avoidant and dismissive avoidant.  Insecure attachment behaviors fall on a continuum from anxious on one end, fearful avoidant in the middle, and dismissive avoidant on the far right.  People usually have a combination of these behaviors, but will have a side of the continuum they typically feel comfortable sitting on when they feel threatened in a relationship.

  • Secure
    • A natural tendency towards feeling safe to express your feelings and needs
    • Openness towards communication and belief that conflicts are solvable problems
    • Strong ability to regulate your emotions
    • Empathy towards others
    • Natural balanced with boundary setting
    • Feel safe to express your truth
    • Strong sense of self-Identity
  • Insecure 
  • Anxious Preoccupied
    • Fear of abandonment
    • Dislike being alone or out of relationships for prolonged periods of time
    • Fear of loss or disconnection in relationship
    • Can appear clingy or needy
    • Emotional hunger to get consistently closer in a relationship
    • Often want to move very quickly to a commitment in a relationship
    • Very sensitive to rejection
    • Develop strong feelings quite easily
  • Fearful Avoidant
    • Fear of being truly vulnerable and expressing your inner feelings and needs
    • Trust wounds, suspicion and feelings of betrayal
    • Experiencing guilt easily
    • Strong emotions, aggression or anger at times
    • Great capacity for empathy for others, but often struggle with empathy and kindness towards yourself.
    • Feelings of ambivalence in relationships, often swinging from hot to cold
    • Hypervigilance
    • Poor boundaries unless experiencing anger
    • Passionate but often emotionally volatile relationships
  • Dismissive Avoidant
    • Difficulty believing emotional needs can be met by others
    • Quick to repress or diminish their own emotions
    • Protective of own space and time alone
    • Fear of commitment
    • Dislike being vulnerable
    • Blunt or harsh with actions at times
    • Easily wounded by criticism
    • Withdraw to self-soothe when hurt, often slow to warm back up

Case Study:

We used this information with a high-functioning Executive team that had built deep trust over several years and were actively working Patrick Lencioni’s work in the book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Interestingly, four of the six team members identified as Dissmissive Avoidant, one was Anxious Preoccupied and another was Secure. When the team processed these results they discovered behavior patterns that they do to each other when they feel threatened and need to protect their emotions.  The Dismissive Avoidant leaders acknowledged they will shut down and withdrawal emotionally from the relationship and often leave the other individual feeling abandoned. The Anxious leader said they often seek validation and approval in a manipulative way to feel safe in the team dynamics. The secure attached individual noted they feel the effects of the Anxious Preoccupied individual as needy compared to the others and they experienced the Dissmissive Avoidant individuals as cold and distant at times. This executive team now uses this language to help bring awareness and clarity to each other when relationships feel threatening in some way and this is allowing them to build deeper trust and engage in more honest healthy conflict.

As you can see, when leaders deepen their personal understanding of their psychology and sub-conscious behavior patterns, teams become that much more effective.

Reach out to a coach today to learn more about how these concepts and others can support your team’s continued growth and development in leadership by understanding how unconscious habits and patterns impact your workplace productivity and how to grow leaders in your organization to so you get the results you want from your teams.


Keyne Petkovic


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