Attachment in the workplace: do you understand how it works?

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Children are born with a range of innate behaviours to maximise their survival. Among these is attachment behaviour, which allows the child to draw their primary caregivers towards them at moments of need or distress.”

Attachment difficulties include insecure attachment patterns and disorganised attachments that often develop into coercive controlling or compulsive caregiving. This theory was developed by John Bowlby who was born in February 1907 to an upper-middle-class family. 

One of six children, Bowlby was not raised by his mother, but by a nanny. He only saw his mother once a day after teatime for about an hour.

When he was four, his nanny, Bowlby’s primary carer, left the family. The event traumatised the young Bowlby. At age seven, he was also sent to boarding school, visiting his family during the holidays only.

Bowlby was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst: his view of child development was originally argued in 1949 at the Royal Institution, based on the idea that a lack of consistent maternal care led to severe inhibition of feelings of love, ultimately leading to possible juvenile delinquency and/or mental health issues.

He coined the phrase “maternal deprivation”.

But what exactly is Attachment Theory and how can it impact on leadership?

Attachment Theory is based on the attachment the prime caregiver, generally the mother, has with the newborn infant. The theory highlights the mirroring process whereby the baby learns about relationships, trust and loving. 

In her book Coming Into Mind – The Mind:Brain Relationship, Margaret Wilkinson states: “Thus the initial development of mind is relational and associative, the product of inner and outer experience, arising from the earliest experiences of relationship encountered in the experience with the primary care giver. Panksepp, Schore, Trevarthen and many others emphasize that both development of mind and genetic expression are experience dependent. They stress the relational, intersubjective nature of the development of the individual self.”

Crucial attachment to the prime caregiver (mother in most instances) happens between birth and three years with the strongest attachment developing from 6 months onwards.

The attachment works at the psychosocial level, and with the biological and neurological pathways. In other words relationships, trust, security, communication are all learnt from the peer group surrounding the child at levels dependent on the closeness. 

Christina Strang - attachment theory

A secure attachment shapes our abilities to:

  • Feel safe
  • Develop meaningful connections with others
  • Explore our world
  • Deal with stress
  • Balance emotions
  • Experience comfort and security
  • Make sense of our lives
  • Create positive memories and expectations of relationships
  • Rebound from disappointment, discouragement and misfortune

Some of the risk factors that can cause insecurity for a child are:

  1. Parental separation
  2. Daycare - without main attachment figure
  3. Prime caregiver with insecure attachment style
  4. Psychological stress of parent
  5. Mental health of caregiver
  6. Adoption
  7. Fostering
  8. Pre-term birth

Research is now highlighting that anything disrupting a young child’s secure base, both physical and emotional, could result in trauma and insecurity.  These early learnt behaviours become schemas, models that impact on leadership. 

Attachment theory has been developed over the years and has been shown to affect people in many different situations.

The following information is a quote from Tracey Manning, leadership consultant and associate professor at the University of Maryland:

“Insecure attachment also significantly affects leadership. The companies of small business owners with insecure avoidant attachment have more centralized decision-making, micromanagement of employees, and less delegation than those of securely attached owners. Insecure leaders report personalized motives for leadership and desire power for their own purposes.

"Despite these drawbacks, insecure avoidant adults are often seen as leaders because they work long hours, show high work satisfaction and achievement and devote themselves to work versus their personal lives.

They are often promoted to management in organizations that prioritize technical over interpersonal competence. Insecure anxious adults are less likely to be seen as leaders because of their inconsistent and high-maintenance relationship behaviour, and because their relationship issues often drain energy from their work performance (as well as, presumably, from others’ work performance).”

Workplace research has indicated that secure individuals exhibit a statistically significant and higher level of engagement, are able to express themselves more, and support an organisation’s goals and outcomes than those with an insecure attachment that do not have the same self-worth or belief in the organisation, leading to decreased levels of engagement (link to a book from Dale Hudson, organisational engagement researcher and commentator)

Type of attachment General Leaders
Insecure Avoidant
  • Loners
  • Distrust of relationships
  • Suppress feelings
  • Distance themselves from conflict and stress
  • Isolated
  • Emotionally-removed
  • Self-sufficient
  • Tend to work long hours, in some cases becoming workaholics.
  • Like to retain control and micro-manage rather than delegate.
  • Management skills not always evident.
Insecure Anxious
  • Self-critical
  • Insecure
  • Seek approval and reassurance from others
  • Can be clingy and over-dependent on partner
  • Fear of rejection
  • Inconsistent attitude and dependency on others indicate they are not natural leaders
  • Work performance can be hampered by relationship issues
  • Strong sense of self
  • Close associations with others
  • Positive view of life
  • Good self-esteem
  • Trusting, lasting relationships
  • Ability to delegate
  • Good working relationships with staff and other team members
  • Emotional intelligence

Research has shown that the impact of attachment security - and insecurity - on leadership is more pronounced than previously thought. Even in the army, where it has been shown that leaders with an insecure attachment themselves have a resultant, higher incidence of PTSD within the ranks. 

Other research with military personnel has shown lower cohesion of groups with avoidant insecure officers. This sort of situation could also, therefore, seriously affect team building in industry and as such HR need to be aware of such a factor when recruiting.

But how far can organisations actually go in delving into someone’s background especially if the individuals themselves only have an unconscious memory?

Graphology (aka the psychological study of handwriting) is a good method of identifying individuals who have been affected, quite often unconsciously, by an attachment disorder.

Signs in the writing can indicate parental separation, communication and relationship abilities, skills that an individual brings to the table, emotional discord, early environmental input, and potentially what type of actions a person might make as a result.  

Case 1

Case 1 - handwriting - Christina Strang

This writer works in the health industry. He is highly qualified for his role, working with patients on a daily basis. There are signs in the writing of classic resistance to authority, especially if his boss is a female. 

He would complain relentlessly about work situations, pay and the people in authority, but would stick at the job because it pays him well to do so. 

Having a military background, he learnt certain styles of behaviour at that time, and continues with the same dictatorial attitude with his staff now, having no empathy (“why would I want to get that close to someone, I can offer sympathy”), suppressing emails and removing himself emotionally from situations.

He was born with a condition that meant he spent many years in and out of hospital and as such was unable to bond with his mother causing problems as an adult in relationships on a personal and business level. He is very much a lone wolf, albeit married, and believes he has to keep proving himself to all and sundry.  

Case 2

Case 2 - handwriting - Christina Strang

This man is an international project manager working in the IT industry.  His early life and the decisions taken at that time have set a life pattern for now. A dominating mother and ineffectual father left him with unresolved issues, not sure who to actually relate to or even how to. He is not a natural socialite. 

His writing is showing signs of diminished energy and activity with an inconsistent approach to life and events combined with a somewhat inadaptable approach to society. 

By nature he relies heavily on his instincts and intuition, he is a traditionalist, cautious in his dealings with people and the practicalities of life, which just pass him by. Because of a lack of emotional balance in his life, he is currently acting impulsively on occasions and can be unpredictable.

He is quite a sensitive individual and is showing some insecurity relating to his future.

This man has an inquisitive mind and enjoys digging deep to find out whatever interests him at the time, as long as it can be found on the internet! He is quite laid back and happy to act with the least possible effort, but he is intuitive, has a creative imagination and a rapid reasoning of situations and detail with an ability to handle most things thrown at him.

He finds rules and systems confining and never completes everything on a list in one go. In work he would always take a logical route to solve problems and would take control as a method to combat his normal disorganised self. 

There are issues around the lack of nurturance received from his mother, playing out in today’s world. The repressed feelings which are buried deep in his unconscious has led to unpredictable mood swings; on occasions acting impulsively and at others being exceedingly cautious. This is hyper emotivity versus logical mind. 

The good leaders recognise that they can only lead as they are, but the great leaders learn who they are and then continue to learn how they can improve – emotionally, securely, in communication and with trust. 

I have just released three short training modules in graphology.

About Christina Strang


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