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Relating Styles at Work

Attachment theory is generally applied outside the work setting. In its contemporary format people are said to differ in the extents to which they are anxious about relationships and avoidant of close relationships. Anxiety is seen to stem from a negative view of oneself whereas avoidance comes from a negative view of others. People’s attachment stems from their childhood, a time that ‘working models’ are established that guide interactions with others. These tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, the avoidant person who distrusts others behaves in ways that causes others to respond in a manner that fuels the avoidant person’s distrust.

Last year, two Canadian researchers published an article that sought to extend the application of attachment theory to our lives at work. They showed that attachment anxiety was associated with fewer organisational citizenship behaviours, such as attending non-mandatory meetings. Anxiety was also associated with a greater level of support seeking and with increased thoughts of quitting. On the other hand, avoidance was associated with less support seeking and more use of disguise of one’s true feelings at work.

It is interesting to see attachment theory applied to work. Clearly the way we view relationships is not suspended as we walk into the office. The variables examined by the researchers produce some useful insights, such as attachment being a factor determining a person’s organisational citizenship. Furthermore, the findings might be helpful to coaches. For example, the avoidant person who disguises their feelings might appear inauthentic. In turn, this might mar their performance as a leader. Indeed, exploring a person’s anxiety and avoidance of relationships might be relevant more generally in explaining behaviours that are noticed by others, for example in 360 degree feedback. However, it is obviously important for coaches not to stray beyond their competences and what is appropriate in a work context for exploration.

We believe the ideas of attachment theory can also be employed to cast light on the current employment relationship. In Winning the talent war, we explored the proposition that organisations nowadays want to secure the services of people who do not have a high need for security – people who are not anxious about security. Such people should be better able to cope with change. Organisations also want people who are not avoidant of commitment – people who will stay and be the future leadership. To achieve this, organisations need to create a sense of trust, a sense that can hardly be engendered by a UBS approach to ‘letting people go’.

How Can Human Assets Help?

As highly qualified psychologists, we are in a position to coach individuals whose less adaptive behaviours stop them realising their full potential. We can also employ the ideas of attachment theory at a more organisational level to help you create a positive employment relationship with your staff.


Richards, D. A. And Schat, A. C H. Attachment at (not to) work: Applying attachment theory to explain individual behaviour in organisations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2011, Vol 96 No 1, pp 169-182. Woodruffe, C. Winning the talent war: A strategic approach to attracting, developing and retaining the best people. John Wiley and Sons, 1999.


November 2012

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