Workplace relationships—like any other relationship—put your interpersonal skill set to use, often involving every bit as much (if not more) of your time and energy, too. “The workplace is a microcosm of the bigger system in which we operate,” says psychotherapist Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT. “Whenever individuals interact with others on a regular basis, as they do at work, there is a high likelihood that behavioral patterns known as attachment styles will surface.”
“Whenever individuals interact with others on a regular basis, as they do at work, there is a high likelihood that attachment styles will surface.” —Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, psychotherapist
Divided into four main categories, these attachment styles include secure (capable of trusting, getting vulnerable); anxious (often unsure of where they stand, seeking reassurance); avoidant (regularly deflecting close connections or intimacy); and disorganized (some mixture of anxious and avoidant tendencies). “The idea behind attachment theory is that you learn how to have relationships in the family you grow up in, and that relationship style becomes your adult attachment style,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “You’re then likely to replicate that style in other relationships, including work relationships, throughout adulthood, unless you’ve put effort into changing it.”
For instance, if your needs were not always met by your caretakers as a child, and you learned that you couldn’t trust others to follow through on their promises, you might develop an anxious attachment style that trickles into your adult relationships—perhaps showing up at work in your insecurities about whether your manager or coworkers really have your back. Whereas, someone with a secure attachment style (spawned by a more supportive upbringing) might find themselves more confident in their standing at work and more trusting of their peers.
Below, experts break down all the different ways that having each attachment style could influence your workplace experience, so you can gather some insight into what’s, well, working at work (and what’s not).
Here’s how people of each attachment style tend to experience the workplace
In the same way that securely attached folks tend to fare well in romantic relationships, they are also typically comfortable “forming close bonds with others at work and tend to be trusting of those in leadership,” says Hendrix. Per attachment theory, that’s a direct result of having been able to trust and rely upon caretakers as a kid, or having watched adults in their sphere trust each other (to positive effect) throughout their childhood.
That ability among people with secure attachment to have strong relationships with others also means that they’re more likely to work well on teams and in group projects without becoming overly possessive or having boundary problems, says Dr. Daramus. What develops as a result is often a strong network of supportive coworkers that “can make you less vulnerable to burnout and more resilient at work overall,” she says.
In fact, research backs that up: In a 1990 survey of 290 people, securely attached respondents were the ones least likely to fear failure and rejection from coworkers—which would ostensibly make them more likely to develop strong bonds with these teammates that they could use to their advantage.
“People with secure attachment [typically] have the ability to cope with stressors at work and the skills to seek support from others when needed.” —Dina Wirick, PhD, clinical psychologist
To be clear, that’s not to say that everything is always rosy at work for the securely attached. But when a tough situation or disagreement (inevitably) arises, they’re typically well-equipped to handle it. “People with secure attachment [typically] have the ability to cope with stressors at work and the skills to seek support from others when needed,” says clinical psychologist Dina Wirick, PhD. And in a similar vein, they’re less likely to spiral when faced with critical feedback than their less securely attached counterparts, she adds. Rather than question their relationship with their manager or themselves upon receiving such critique, they’re capable of taking it at face value.
Often because of a chaotic or inconsistent relationship with their caretakers during childhood, anxiously attached people may have a deep-seated fear of abandonment or rejection that causes them to seek reassurances from whomever they’re in relationship with—potentially including their coworkers or managers.
These folks may worry about the “hidden meaning behind critical feedback” or “overly personalize constructive criticism” as something that indicates their lack of worth or value, says Dr. Wirick. Similarly, they could misinterpret delays in response from their boss or colleagues as rejection, which could increase anxiety and lower productivity, she adds.
It’s likely that all of these worries swirling around interactions with their colleagues could increase the anxiously attached person’s risk of workplace burnout, according to a 2014 survey of more than 1600 employees in Canada. In fact, the survey found that anxious attachment was strongly correlated with “experienced and instigated workplace incivility, exhaustion, and cynicism.”
In terms of work ethic, however, the anxiously attached person is likely to be consistently working on improving their skills or performance, says Hendrix (as part of their efforts to be fully accepted). “They rarely cause problems or question things in favor of going with the flow,” she says, which can lead to fewer petty squabbles at work. “And because of their anxiousness, they also tend to be hyper-vigilant,” adds Hendrix, “detecting threats or risk before others.”
Just as the name implies, people with avoidant attachment styles tends to avoid or push away others whenever feasible, largely because of trust issues. Typically, these spring from a childhood upbringing with caretakers who were unaffectionate, unresponsive, or just plain unavailable. And as a result, the avoidantly attached employee tends to steer clear of workplace social interactions (avoiding last-minute or unexpected ones at all costs) and disengage in response to any kind of critical feedback, says Dr. Wirick.
In some cases, that means an employee with an avoidant attachment style will just keep to themselves at work, but in other cases, they might express open disagreement with or criticize bosses and those in leadership, says Hendrix. “In the extreme, they can be seen as naysayers who cause friction,” she says. But usually, they’re just the lone wolves of the workplace pack.
Without really being able to develop an emotional connection to coworkers, avoidantly attached folks “can feel excluded but not know what to do about it,” says Dr. Daramus. And absent a support network, they're likely more prone to burnout, too, she adds.
At the same time, though, the avoidantly attached may be capable of high productivity—particularly in jobs that mostly involve heads-down solo work—because they can “remain focused on the task at hand without being lured by distractions or lunchtime chit chat,” says Hendrix.
A bit of a wild card, the person with a disorganized attachment style carries some traits of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles, says Hendrix, so you never really know what you’re going to get when you interact with them. That’s often the result of a childhood during which they had to act, in some capacity, as the adult, leading them to feel as if everything around them is chaotic and unpredictable, says Dr. Daramus.
“At certain times, the person with disorganized attachment might act like they really want to be part of the team and crave approval, and at other times, they may push people away, shut down, and criticize others,” says Hendrix. Generally, that’s because their attempts at the former—which can come across as people-pleasing to gel with the group—seem to fall short, in their eyes, such that they don’t ever really feel supported by their coworkers. “They may feel as if they’ll always be inadequate or unwanted so long as they’re not perfect,” says Dr. Daramus. And as a result, they could turn to pushing people away, in some instances, out of helplessness.
The resulting volatility in their behavior can undoubtedly cause them to sabotage their workplace relationships, says Hendrix.
How to use insight about your attachment style to your advantage at work
If you’re aware of your attachment style and the way it underscores your behavioral tendencies at work, you can communicate with coworkers and managers about how you prefer to work (whether solo or in a group, for instance), how you best respond to feedback, and the kind of reassurance you might need to feel secure and confident that your work is being appreciated.
It’s also important to remember, from the outset, that your behaviors are not who you are. “They are normal reactions to what you did or didn’t get when you were developing into a fully functioning human,” says Hendrix. “And many people didn’t get what they needed from their parents or caretakers because they didn’t get what they needed, either,” she says.
But rather than use that cycle as an excuse, it’s possible to put the kibosh on it for good by giving yourself what you needed but didn’t get, she says. In doing so, you can also un-learn unhelpful behavioral patterns (that you picked up only in response to not having your needs met in the past)—and, in turn, change your adult attachment style.
Hendrix recommends working with a psychotherapist who specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy if you’re aiming to change your attachment style or simply to have more compassion and understanding for yourself and your behaviors, as they stand.
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