There’s a cliché in the world of psychotherapy that many of the issues and problems you face as an adult are rooted in things that happened in your childhood. But things often become clichés for a reason, and there is actually a lot of truth to this principle, particularly when it comes to adult relationships.
The best-selling book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, has re-ignited popular culture’s interest in attachment theory and for good reason: it can help you better understand yourself and why you behave the way you do in relationships. Why? Because attachment theory describes how our earliest relationships with our caregivers provide a blueprint for how we interact with others as adults.
While we tend to focus on how our attachment style influences our relationship with our family of origin and our romantic relationships, our attachment styles also play key roles in how we handle communication and conflict at work. How can your attachment style positively or negatively affect your relationship with your boss and coworkers?
Cultivating a greater sense of awareness about how you typically respond to conflict with your boss or coworkers can help you make any necessary adjustments to improve your communication style. The first step is to identify your attachment style, the second is to identify how your attachment style affects your experience and relationships with others at work, and the third is to identify any changes or adjustments you can make to improve the quality of your relationships with your coworkers and boss.
Let’s take a closer look at the four adult attachment styles and how they affect your work relationships.
Your attachment style describes the type of relationship you had with your primary caregiver as a child. When you were sad, tired, scared, or hungry, as a child, your primary caregiver either took care of your needs or did not. When your caregiver meets your needs and you learn that you can depend on them, you have a secure attachment style. About 56 percent of the population has this type of attachment style. When your caregiver is inconsistent with meeting your needs, you often form an anxious attachment style, which characterizes about 20 percent of the population. And when your caregiver neglects or ignores your needs, you are likely to form an avoidant attachment style; people with avoidant attachment style make up about 23 percent of the population. The least common attachment style, found in only about 1 percent of the population, is disorganized attachment style and can form when there is abuse or violence in the home. (Because this attachment style is far less common, it won’t be discussed in this article).
When you form a secure attachment, you have fairly stable and healthy relationships with your coworkers. For example, a study by Annette Towler and Alice Stuhlmacher found that women who have secure attachment styles are more likely to be satisfied with their job, and they are also more likely to experience lower levels of conflict at work. If you have a secure attachment style and are working at a job that is a good fit for you, you are more likely to report feeling challenged, competent, and secure with your job, as well as liking and getting along with your coworkers, according to a 2015 study by Michael Leiter, Arla Day, and Lisa Price on attachment styles at work.
If you have a secure attachment style, try focusing on investing your time and energy into work that you feel passionate about. Because others look to you for balance and guidance in team dynamics, it is important for you to set boundaries and know where it’s best to focus your attention.
When you have an anxious attachment, you may primarily experience anxiety about your relationships. You may find yourself wondering if you are doing enough to keep everyone satisfied with your performance at work (never feeling good enough), or you may live in constant worry that you are on the verge of being fired. Fitting in at work is likely very important, and it can spark a lot of anxiety in you.
This doesn’t mean having an anxious attachment style necessarily puts you at a disadvantage. A 2011 study by Tsachi Ein-Dor, Mario Mikulincer, and Phillip R. Shaver found that individuals with anxious attachment styles were more likely to promote group effectiveness because of their awareness of nuances and potential “dangers” to the group.
If you have an anxious attachment style, one area to try to grow in is setting boundaries, time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests. Because fitting in with your team is important to you, you might find yourself neglecting to set healthy boundaries, but this can lead to resentment and burnout. For this type of person, it will help to focus on setting healthy boundaries (and not being afraid to say “no”) to help keep work relationships strong.
While individuals with anxious attachment focus primarily on being liked by others, those with an avoidant attachment style tend to place a greater emphasis on being independent of others. Leiter and his colleagues found that individuals with avoidant attachment were more likely to prefer to work alone and to use work as an excuse to avoid socializing. But this can negatively affect your experience at work. For example, Towler and Stuhlmacher found that women who have an avoidant attachment style have lower quality relationships with their supervisors.
But there are also advantages to having an avoidant attachment style. Ein-Dor and his co-authors found that individuals with this attachment style tend to respond more quickly to resolve issues in the group. Have high self-esteem and a strong sense of self can help you act decisively in situations at work rather than waiting for direction from others.
If this is your attachment style, it might be helpful to focus on bringing more balance to your work life by making an effort to make authentic connections with others at work. While it may be tempting to shut your office door or pop your headphones in to indicate that you are “very busy,” consider the benefits that can come from connecting with your boss and coworkers.
Whatever your attachment style, knowing more about its particular characteristics will equip you to use and hone its strengths while being on the lookout for its challenges.