You remember back to the round of interviews that got you the current team you manage. In those spirited meetings, your future workers seemed passionate, profound, and driven by the desire to do the best work possible. In the time since, you have started to wonder if you made mistakes in hiring them at all. Some seem terrified of making mistakes and hang on your every word of praise or critique like it’s the difference between life and death. Others avoid collaboration like it’s the plague, even altering their working hours to keep them separate for longer times during the day. And a third group seems constantly on the verge of breaking down altogether; perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, fatigue creeping into their late-day performance, and a general malaise that is hurting your business group’s efficiency.
What’s going on?
The workplace has changed, in many cases irrevocably, due to COVID-19 and the resulting realization by millions that they preferred remote work, entrepreneurship, and veering off the beaten path rather than a chain in the link of a larger company. With resignation rates high in all industries, employees are being saddled with lots of extra work by managers in order to keep up with the pace of production and keep customers who aren’t concerned with the massive rate of turnover, only about getting their orders filled on time and to satisfaction.
While the work itself is a factor in this scenario, many managers are in the dark that the way they form relationships with their employees, a habit based on their childhood attachment experiences, has a huge impact on the relations they form with their employees and how well their workers’ function.
John Bowlby, 1970 described attachment theory on the basis of our innate need to form long-term relationships that can guarantee our survival. As a child, our survival is dependent on the relationships we forge with our primary caregivers. The way caregivers respond to our physical and psychological needs will influence the mental models we will use to form effective relationships as an adult.
Three Styles of Attachment
The three styles of attachment aren’t just for the workplace setting. They define how we are in all facets of life – our own family, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. The first type is the secure attachment, almost universally considered the most desirable. It means a person does well with forming strong bonds with others, trusting those bonds, and are themselves viewed as a valuable group member. They have confidence in their abilities and are typically able to work proficiently independently or as part of various-sized groups. This style emerged from having responsive caregivers who were attuned to the person’s emotional, physical, and psychological needs.
Some People Excel at Leading and Some Don’t- Which One Are You?
Let’s reexamine those three attachment styles through the lens of being a leader in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the most desirable attachment style overall is also generally accepted as the best in the business world. Secure leaders are normally top performers who can focus on completing both short-term and long-term tasks while also developing genuine relationships with their employees and being sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. They are appreciative of the skillsets of each particular worker and also understand that their employees are people first and foremost, with lives, dreams, and concerns that exist solely outside of the office setting.
Managers who are avoidant attachment types often struggle the most as leaders because they don’t really want to manage others; they want to handle every crisis and big project themselves and only want their employees to stay out of their way. This can lead to them assigning their employees lots of low-level “busy work” while handling the more important tasks themselves, or taking their employees’ work and altering it post-completion to fall more in line with their ideas of how projects should be done. Either way, they are adding undue stress to their team members’ lives by either demeaning their abilities or by indirectly making them responsible for work that isn’t theirs. Understanding your attachment style can go a long way towards mastering it and creating strategies to avoid or reduce employee burnout.
Breaking Free of Burnout
Depending on your attachment style, there are strategies to reduce employee burnout and also unburden your mind from the doubts that tend to well up there frequently when deadlines are closing in around you.
For anxious attachment managers, realize that your typically negative opinion of why every employee needs your hand on their shoulder at all times is not necessarily the truth. This style of manager has a bad habit of taking a single observation and turning it into the entire persona of an employee. Five o’clock shadow every day transforms into the image of a worker who doesn’t pay attention to small details. Seeing a worker checking Facebook on their phone one day morphs into them always goofing off instead of working. To avoid transferring that anxious feeling to your workers, also do a better job of communicating priorities of what you expect from them based on their own skill sets and when the work is due. Those simple points of communication can alleviate anxiety on both sides of the table.
Avoidant-style managers must find ways to communicate and form bonds with their workers instead of treating them like automatons to be ordered around to complete tasks and then switch off. A personal connection from a 5-minute conversation can do enormous amounts of good. Workers who think a boss is too busy for them will shy away from asking questions about a task, and at the same time not wish to make suggestions on how it could be done better for fear of a confrontation. This type of manager is often a workaholic, and their teams will often feel compelled to do likewise, even if it causes them undue amounts of stress. The manager must model the work-life balance, even during perceived crunch time, with simple things like taking breaks, stepping outside for some sunshine, having a team lunch, or relaxing over a cup of coffee together. It might feel like foreign territory, but these small steps are what forge the foundation of true team unity.
What you must realize is that the brain uses the same mental models to form all kinds of relationships. This means that the way you manage your personal relationships has a similar pattern to your work relationships. Raise awareness of how you show up anxious or avoidant or both and develop strategies to forge secure relationships with others. In your day-to-day interactions, find ways to establish strong bonds that reiterate your trust and appreciation for your workers. This will go a long way to keeping them focused and productive, avoiding burnout over the long term.
- What Is Attachment Theory?
- Attachment Style, Leadership Behavior, and Perceptions of Leader Effectiveness in Academic Management, Rehema Underwood 2015.
- Maslyn, J. and Schyns, B. and Farmer, S. (2017) ‘Attachment style and leader-member exchange: the role of effort to build high quality relationships.’, Leadership and organization development
- Yair Berson , Orrie Dan & Francis J. Yammarino (2006) Attachment Style and Individual Differences in Leadership Perceptions and Emergence, The Journal of Social Psychology, 146:2, 165-182, DOI: 10.3200/SOCP.146.2.165-182journal., 38 (3). pp.450-462.
- The neurobiology of attachment seminar with Ruth Buczynski, PhD; Joan Borysenko, PhD; and Bill O’Hanlon, LMFT. National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Health.
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