Attachment at (not to) Work

Adult Attachment Styles in the Workplace by P.D. Harms

Is a wonderful research review of the applications of Attachment Theory in the context of work.

The theory was initially developed through decades of pioneering work by Harry Harlow (1950s),  John Bowlby (1960s) and Mary Ainsworth (1970s) to classify and explore the relationships between infants and their caregivers. In recent decades, it has been expanded to be used as a tool for understanding adult relationships, initially between romantic partners and more recently in broader contexts, like the kind of relationships that adults form at work. The theory distinguishes between 4 attachment styles based on levels of anxiety and avoidance: secure, anxious/pre-occupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.

Harms’ paper gives a good overview of the evolution of attachment theory, its relationship with contemporary personality theory (Five Factor Model), its application in the workplace and future directions of research on the latter.

Before we proceed, a cautionary note: I haven’t done due diligence on the research cited in his paper. So the connections and correlations listed below should be reviewed through a filter of healthy skepticism.

Leadership emergence and effectiveness:

  • A pattern of insecure attachment relationships was associated with the failure to develop the independence necessary to be a good leader.
  • Securely attached team members were more likely to emerge as leaders in experimental groups.
  • Individuals with secure or avoidant attachment were more likely to be nominated as a leader by their peers than individuals with anxious/ambivalent orientations.
  • Secure attachment has been associated with a relational (as opposed to task) leadership style and avoidant attachment was associated with a tendency towards task-oriented leadership.
  • Securely attached leaders were more likely to delegate while avoidant leaders reported the least amount of delegation.
  • Leaders with an anxious orientation were described by their followers as having lower task efficacy while officers with avoidant orientations were described as having lower emotional efficacy.
  • Both leader and follower attachment insecurity were found to contribute to follower burnout and job satisfaction.
  • While secure attachment was associated with higher scores across transformational leadership dimensions. There was also a general tendency for avoidant/ dismissing attachment to be negatively associated transformational leadership.
  • Individuals whose relationships with parents could generally be described as secure were more likely to describe their leadership style as charismatic.
  • The followers of securely attached leaders described their leaders as being more effective than the followers of insecurely attached leaders. Those followers also reported higher levels of job satisfaction.


  • Both avoidance and anxious attachment have been linked with lower levels of trust and subsequent caregiving behaviors.
  • Secure individuals were more willing to open themselves up and disclose information to others.
  • Significant positive relationships between secure attachment and trust in supervisors, peers, and upper management.
  • Having an avoidant attachment relationship with one’s supervisor was associated with lower levels of trust and, in turn, career satisfaction.
  • In a study of the reasons for developing trust with others, securely attached individuals tended to report that their goal was to gain intimacy. By contrast, insecure individuals reported that gaining a sense of security was of more importance to them. Further, in response to trust violations, secure individuals reported attempting to communicate with partners to resolve the problem, avoidant individuals reported distancing themselves from those relationships, and anxious individuals reported increases in rumination and worry.

Job attitudes, stress, health, coping, and work–family balance:

  • Securely attached individuals reported significantly higher satisfaction with most aspects of their workplace (e.g. coworkers, job security, recognition, etc.). Secure individuals were also less likely to report hostile outbursts in the workplace, were less prone to psychosomatic illnesses, and less prone to experiencing actual physical illnesses.
  • Insecurely attached workers reported greater anxiety over rejection by others if their work was of poor quality.
  • Anxious individuals in particular felt unappreciated and misunderstood in the workplace.
  • In an experimental study of reactions to a supervisor being dismissive or distant, insecurely attached individuals reported that they would be more prone to experiencing anger or distress emotions.
  • In terms of burnout in the workplace, researchers found strong relationships with insecure attachment in a large sample of working adults. Interestingly, the effects of attachment on feelings of burnout were largely mediated by team cohesion and perceived organizational fairness.
  • Individuals with avoidant attachment reported significantly less support-seeking behaviors and more attempts at distancing.
  • Anxious/ambivalent individuals were less prone to use using emotion-based coping strategies when faced with highly stressful situations.
  • Securely attached individuals were less likely to report stressful situations as a threat to themselves and were significantly more likely to describe them as being opportunities for growth and challenge.
  • Secure individuals were more likely to engage in support-seeking behaviors while those with avoidant attachment were significantly less likely to seek support when facing a problem.
  • Securely attached individuals were less likely to report that work was interfering with their home life. Moreover, insecurely attached individuals were more likely to report that their work (as opposed to their home life) was more important to them in terms of their overall happiness.
  • Securely attached individuals tended to report positive spillover effects between work and home while individuals with insecure attachment orientations were significantly more likely to report negative spillover between work and home life. Avoidant individuals were also significantly more likely to report attempts at segmentation of the two domains.

Job performance:

  • Both avoidant and anxious attachment were associated with less instrumental helping behaviors in the workplace.
  • Individuals higher on avoidant attachment are particularly unlikely to report engaging in volunteer activities.
  • In terms of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors (OCBs), significant positive relationships have been found with secure attachment in a number of studies. Similarly, high scores on anxious and avoidant attachment have also been associated with reduced OCBs in the workplace.
  • Individuals with higher levels of anxious and avoidant attachment report putting less effort into team tasks. In addition, individuals with higher levels of avoidant attachment are less likely to help other group members or facilitate team cohesion.
  • Individuals with avoidant attachment were more likely to report engaging in Counter-Productive Work Behaviors (CWBs), but anxious and secure individuals were not.

Our attachment style tends to solidify very early in life, based on the relationships we had with out caregivers in early childhood. But there’s strong evidence of plasticity in attachment styles, with the right interventions. Most heavily-researched interventions tend to focus on early childhood (here‘s a good example), but Harms cites one study of white-collar workers in which participants showed more than a half standard-deviation change on anxious and avoidant attachment scale scores over the course of 18 weeks of therapy.

If attachment styles are indeed at the core of so many work-related perceptions and behaviors, then interventions aimed at changing attachment styles offer a promising return on investment. But before we rush off to modify the attachment style of any anxious or avoidant adult, the fact that somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of adults are insecurely attached should give us pause. The taxonomy used in attachment theory is not judgement-free (secure = good, anxious/avoidant = not-so-good) and likely introduces some bias which focuses research on validating the benefits of secure attachment and disadvantages of insecure attachment. If insecure attachment offers no adaptive advantages, how come so many of us are insecurely attached?

While still in its infancy, new research attempts to explore the impact of attachment styles beyond individual relationships. Some preliminary findings suggest that a social group containing members with different attachment patterns may be more conducive to survival than a homogeneous group of securely attached individuals. Specifically, individuals with an anxious attachment style, are more likely to pick up on early warning signs of an upcoming threat; and individuals with an avoidant attachment style strong self-preservation instinct are more likely to (inadvertently) identify solutions that will help with group-preservation.

The late Andy Grove, Intel’s legendary CEO is credited with the motto: “only the paranoid survive”. Care to take a guess at his attachment style?


Attachment at (not to) Work

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