How Attachment Theory Shows Up in Business - and How to Use It to Succeed
More often than not, the people I work with reach out to me to help them and their companies because of self-identified problems in communication and emotional intelligence (EQ). This can look like managers struggling with motivating their employees, sarcastic CEOs who scare everyone, and (my personal favorite to work with) co-founders who can't stand each other anymore, among many other scenarios.
But it's never communication or EQ deficits that bring people to the place where they and their businesses need my help.
After all, people who create and work in successful companies usually aren't missing the capacity to communicate well. They've successfully launched a business and raised the funding or revenue to grow it. Or they've interviewed well and have a track record that shows they can produce with clients/customers/etc., which gets them hired. It takes exceptional communication skills to achieve those things.
It's not a lack of EQ (emotional intelligence), either. Being good enough at what you do that you climb to a leadership position or create a company means you have demonstrated at least a basic understanding of other human beings, what they need, and how you should treat them. There's a lot of EQ in that.
The professionals I work with - entrepreneurs and decision makers working at a high level in their companies - have the capacity and skills to communicate. They have emotional intelligence, too. So what's happening? Why do they need help?
What's usually going wrong with people in their companies boils down to one very simple concept that is largely missing from conversations about management: Attachment style.
What's attachment style?
Attachment style is a concept that comes from attachment theory - a psychological model that looks at how our very early (from birth to around three years old, before we're fully verbal) relationships with the people who took care of us have shaped the way we see the world and how we relate to others.
Therapists think, write, and talk a lot about attachment style in the ways it shows up in romantic and family relationships. It's easy to see how one's early experience with caregivers has an impact on their choice of partner and the way they parent their own kids.
But I believe that attachment theory applied to the relationships we form at work makes perfect sense, too. And it gives us a way out of some of the messes we get into at work - the impasses that we are chalking up to communication or EQ but which actually go much deeper.
My work in both therapy and executive coaching at Run Walk Talk looks at how attachment is expressed in professional contexts - and how to help people manage it so they can be their most effective, productive, and healthiest selves. Though cognitive-behavioral approaches and communication/EQ skills training have their place, attachment is the most important and useful lens I've found to help people transform their behavior and get better outcomes when they are dealing with others at work (and everywhere else) - it's foundational.
By understanding and managing our own attachment styles and being mindful of the attachment styles of others at work, we can take control of how we interact and break out of the repetitive patterns that are interfering with professional success - patterns which have been tanking the relationships in our companies and sometimes end up tanking the companies themselves. Knowing about attachment and being able to consider it when working with colleagues or clients is like a super power for managing and working with others effectively.
Here's what you need to know about attachment
At its heart, attachment is a very simple concept. In this very basic primer, I'll cover the two basic types of attachment - secure and insecure - and the insecure attachment sub-types: anxious, avoidant, and fearful. I'll tell you their common features and how they usually manifest at work. And I'll also tell you what I think are good ways to work with people with these different attachment styles most effectively. Keep in mind that these descriptions are generalizations - there are nuances and variations to this, and demarcations aren't as clear in real life as they are on paper. Also, none of these attachment styles are "wrong" - they were adaptive when they were formed in early childhood and they worked well enough to get the person where they are now. Attachment styles are also not fixed or permanent - having healthy relationships can tip us closer to secure attachment and having trauma in relationships can move us further from it.
Secure vs. insecure attachment
About two-thirds of us are "securely attached" - we had early caregivers who were attuned and responsive to us a lot of the time. This means they were paying attention to and accurately interpreting our cues and meeting our needs before we really had the language to relay them.
Attachment theory says that having this experience early on sets us up to believe that the world is inherently safe; our needs are valid and important and not shameful; we are worthy and capable of being emotionally close to other people; and being close to others feels good. In relationships with other people, as securely attached people we're pretty sure we will be taken good care of and we can relax into that - we can trust others.
At work, for the most part and most of the time, securely attached people can express their needs calmly, give and take feedback respectfully and without defensiveness, and they can ask for help. They're not perfect by any means - they're still human and make mistakes and struggle - but they are solid managers and employees because their behavior is safe, predictable, and emotionally even.
If you find the above description of the securely attached person a little bland or boring, you're probably not one of them - and you're not alone. About a third of the population is "insecurely attached" - we had early caregivers who, for whatever reason, weren't as attuned and responsive as we needed them to be. Insecure attachment comes in three basic flavors: anxious, avoidant, and fearful. (You can take this quiz to get some idea of which style is yours, or just keep reading and see if you recognize yourself.)
Again, keep in mind that these categories can actually sometimes feel a bit blurry and sometimes features of avoidant and anxious people can be a bit mixed. And recently attachment is coming under some fire; some people want to throw attachment theory out the window in favor of other ways of considering how we become who we become. Also keep in mind that I'm not diagnosing or treating anyone here, and you shouldn't either - this is for your information only, just one of many useful ways of understanding relationships at work.
And finally, I don't recommend running around the office labeling employees (in fact, I recommending leaving that to professionals with the consent and training to do that), but if you're working closely with someone with whom you are having issues, this is a helpful frame to keep in mind, especially as relates to you and how you yourself are operating.
Each of the insecure attachment styles shows up in its own particular ways at work. Below are some which you might recognize.
Insecure attachment style 1: Anxious
Anxious types had early caregiving that was unpredictable - sometimes parents were attuned and responsive and met the child's needs, and sometimes they weren't and didn't. As a result, anxiously attached people have come to believe that while they deeply want to be connected, other people aren't reliable. Their needs can feel like a shameful imposition on others, which can make them prickly about asking for help. They can't be sure when the rug will be pulled out from under them and can be quite vigilant about that, which leads to testing and checking others, and that can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They tend to be attracted to avoidant types, whose behavior pushes their buttons.
Anxious attachment at work: Downsides
At work, people with an anxious attachment style typically present as, well, anxious. They have the tendency to personalize feedback, get overwhelmed, and overflow emotionally (typically, crying, shouting, or storming off). They struggle with organizational change because it threatens their sense of security, and their capacity to roll with the punches can be limited; they can be really rigid and controlling when they aren't sure of their place, and might hold things in until they can't anymore. Anxiously attached people often have a hard time accepting or trusting help that's offered to them.
Anxious attachment at work: Upsides
People with anxious attachment style can be amazing managers of other people if they have enough self-awareness to know how they themselves operate and have some capacity to self-manage that. Because of the tendency of anxiously attached people to be so finely tuned to what's going on with others, they are better able to notice when someone on their team needs help. And they can adapt their management style to the needs of those who report to them. If they can do this with good boundaries and the ability to be firm when needed, it's an incredible skill and helps their employees feel safe, cared for, and heard, and makes people motivated to do good work and want to stick around to keep working with them.
Anxious attachment at work: How to manage down
People with anxious attachment style need managers who aren't afraid of feelings, can give reassurance, and don't mind frequent check-ins. Anxiously attached employees benefit a great deal from working with others face-to-face; it helps them feel more secure and relaxed, which makes for good work. They often need a lot of encouragement and modeling (and sometimes insistence) from their manager on asking for and accepting help. Anxious but aware/self-managed people and secure people make very good managers for anxious employees.
Anxious attachment at work: How to manage up
People with anxious bosses need to be communicative, not take their boss's anxiety personally, and also not take on the anxiety themselves. They also need not to be afraid of feelings, and it helps to be a little dispassionate about whatever the boss is stressing out about and focus on the work product and on solutions; it doesn't help an anxiously attached boss to get sucked into their stress vortex, so the best tactic is to acknowledge their feeling so they feel heard, and then not waste any time getting to work solving the problem. Avoidants usually hate working for unaware anxious bosses, and anxious people who have a hard time self-regulating may not be so happy either; secure people do best with anxious bosses.
Insecure attachment style 2: Avoidant
Avoidant types had early caregiving that was neglectful or consistently less responsive/attuned than needed to internalize that relationships are safe and reliable. Parents typically weren't available or skilled enough to see and meet their needs, so while avoidants still want to be connected to people, they learned to dismiss the inherent human desire for closeness because they don't trust it. As a result, they've adopted a model of relating that's distant and a bit paradoxical - it's only possible to be in close relationships if they hold others safely at arm's length. They can come across as not needing others, and may even verbalize this, which can make them seem callous or unfeeling.
Avoidant attachment at work: Downsides
At work, avoidant types can come across as indifferent to others. They might seem connected to or even invested in others at the start of a working relationship, but typically they can't sustain this - over time they're dismissive and have a hard time tolerating other people's emotions. When there's conflict that involves feelings, they can turn cold, get emotionally flat (minimal expression), and withdraw almost reflexively - it's not uncommon for them to write people off. They're not devoid of feeling - they just don't like being vulnerable and will often try to rationalize behavior that is inherently emotional (like passive-aggressive jabs). They can be tough managers, and for anxious types they can be absolutely brutal managers.
Avoidant attachment at work: Upsides
Avoidants can be really good at taking in constructive feedback (especially if it's substantiated with specific examples and facts - not feelings). They typically handle organizational change well and don't personalize it. And their straightforwardness and lack of (visible) emotion can be interpreted by others (particularly other avoidants, or people who don't work super closely with them) as being even-keeled. Their style is particularly good for dealing with difficult customers and clients - because they personalize a lot less than anxious types, avoidants get less stressed under pressure and can think more creatively about solutions. They're also much less bothered by holding others accountable or firing them; their cool detachment can actually make them really good rational decision-makers, especially with anything finance-related.
Avoidant attachment at work: How to manage down
Avoidants are not as likely to adapt to others as the anxious types are - because they're detached, they'd usually rather leave the company. People with avoidant attachment do their best work when managers let them do their own thing. They're good remote workers; they're good with lots of travel; they work well independently. The area in which they need the most help is being kind and cooperative and caring about other people at the office (or if they don't really care, at least behaving in pro-social ways that are not rude or offensive); giving them very clear directives that include the actual vocabulary they need to use can be helpful. Their manner can grate on the nerves of more team-oriented people (secure people don't like putting up with avoidants, and avoidants tend to set off anxious people), so putting them on solo projects isn't a bad idea. They can be more relationship-adept when they're given very specific feedback and when they understand how behaving differently in certain ways benefits their work (even if it annoys them to accommodate others and their emotions).
One quick note: Sometimes anxious people display some of the traits of avoidants - in moments of defensiveness, anxious people can be dismissive of others who trigger them, for instance. The way I distinguish between an anxious and an avoidant person is that the anxious person will typically freak out if you call them out on any of these behaviors, while the avoidant may be defensive but is usually way more composed about it. One easy way to remember the difference between anxious and avoidant types is that anxious people cry at work, and avoidant people roll their eyes at the people who cry at work (and are usually the reason for the crying).
Avoidant attachment at work: How to manage up
People who work for avoidant types do best if they can manage their own expectations (if they're not avoidant themselves - avoidants make good bosses for other avoidants) - this isn't the warm and fuzzy boss to confide in, become friends with, and count on as a loving mentor forever. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having feelings or needing support at work - it's just best to know that emotional support or deep friendship won't come from this particular boss. That shouldn't be personalized, and effort should instead be made to find the emotional support from people at the company who have the capacity and desire to give that. This doesn't mean an avoidant boss won't support or mentor their employee in practical, professional ways - they're actually quite good at that and they're not going to have a problem praising or rewarding one of their reports for a job well done. They respond best to logic-based, unemotional requests - keeping things brief, straightforward, and factual is a very good strategy for getting one's needs met by an avoidant boss. And any crying is most safely done alone in the bathroom or behind closed doors with trusted secure or anxiously attached colleagues.
Insecure attachment style 3: Fearful
The last insecure attachment style is fearful. Those with a fearful attachment style often experienced early parenting that was erratic, reactive, and traumatizing. As a result, they crave close relationships but are really, really afraid of them at the same time. Fearful people often unwittingly behave in relationships in ways their caregivers behaved with them - unpredictable and out of control in a way that can be disproportionate at best and terrifying at worst. This attachment style is really difficult to have and to manage at work - both for the fearfully attached person and for their colleagues.
At work, fearful people seem to get fired or change jobs a lot because their inability to regulate themselves can feel really disruptive, and any resulting chaos or crisis can seriously interfere with their work product. They have a hard time managing others because their ability to manage themselves is often underdeveloped. And I can't emphasize enough that they usually need support that's beyond the scope of the company's capacity. Unless they're working with a therapist separately, I strongly believe executive coaching is not sufficient for someone who is struggling in this way - they need more comprehensive help.
This attachment style is unique in that I'm not outlining upsides, downsides, and ways to manage up or down, because I don't actually recommend managing up or down when it comes to fearful attachment style. Instead, I recommend a referral to the employee assistance program at the first blowup/meltdown/crisis regardless of what level they're at in the company (including and especially C-suite); the crisis state that fearful attachment creates means they and the company would benefit most from their working intensively with someone who has the proper training and professional license to help them.
People with fearful attachment style who get proper support and are have the opportunity to heal are some of the most compassionate, wonderful people to work with and for. There is really nothing you can't throw at a formerly-fearful person that they can't handle.
One final note on attachment: Self-management
Often the temptation when we learn a new concept is to apply it to others and expecting them to accommodate us, but attachment is a dynamic - it takes at least two to create a relationship. And the only part of the dynamic we have total control over is our own.
I've referred a few times in this article to the idea of "self-management." When it comes to managing relationships at work, it's difficult to have any sort of success with others unless some self-management of our own attachment style is happening - it's not enough just to understand it.
What's also necessary is taking total responsibility for our own attachment style and how we behave at work. To do that effectively, we need to see ourselves with compassion and curiosity so that we can be non-defensive and communicative about our needs with others, and to extend the same grace to others. That's what good leaders do for each other and their teams, and that's what's at the root of all good relationships, both personal and professional.
Sepideh Saremi, LCSW is a psychotherapist and executive coach based in Los Angeles who works with business leaders and their companies. She founded Run Walk Talk, a trademarked method of therapy and coaching, which uses mindful running and walking to help clients move their lives and businesses forward. Her website is runwalktalk.com and you can sign up for her newsletter here.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn and is not to be construed as therapy or medical advice; it’s informational.