When Anxious is Better

Why do we react to feedback like that?

Think about a team or group you’ve worked with, academically or professionally. Chances are, there was a range of personalities on that team. Feedback likely came from within the group rather than from a boss or supervisor. The days of formal performance reviews from the boss as your sole source of feedback are dwindling. The current workplace is flatter, full of employees working together and rapidly swapping ideas and opinions. When you hear feedback from your teammates or coworkers, how do you react? Does it motivate you to improve? Or do you avoid hearing or using it?

Turns out, your approach to feedback may have been shaped by your attachment style during infancy. Babies who had consistent attention from their mothers or caregivers grow into adults who adjust well to work challenges and stress, and seek outside social contact easily. These babies are said to have a secure attachment style, which tends to stick with them throughout life. Babies who had inconsistent attention from their mothers or caregivers become insecure adults who prioritize working with others, praise, belongingness, and social relationships at work. These individuals are said to have an anxious attachment style, and are concerned about others liking them. Babies who were ignored by their mothers may turn into obsessive workers who find solace working alone, and often use work as an excuse to avoid social interaction (Hazan and Shaver, 1990). This last type of individual is said to have an avoidant attachment style. While about half the population is securely attached, the other half uses work to fill unmet social needs.

We might think from these descriptions that people with an anxious attachment style are at a disadvantage; actually, men and women who are anxiously attached have some major advantages. In a 2014 study by Wu, Parker, and deJong, researchers explored the role of attachment orientation in feedback seeking behavior in the workplace. Their main question was how would adults with attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance differ when seeking out feedback from peers in the workplace, and when using that feedback? (Brennan, Clark, and Shaver, 1998). Their sample consisted of employees at a consulting company in Holland—a perfect example of the new workplace with fluid project groups collaborating for multiple short-term projects. Results indicate that the employees higher in attachment anxiety - those who were more worried about their status in their organization and about what their co-workers would think of them, tended to seek out peer feedback more often. Further, the employees with more attachment anxiety demonstrated a stronger link between feedback inquiry and job performance. Therefore, employees with attachment anxiety put feedback to positive use to improve their job performance more than those with a secure attachment style.

The implications of these results are large for the workplace. Anxious attached individuals in previous studies have been viewed negatively in the workplace. They have been found to be too preoccupied about coworkers’ impressions of them and validation to be productive. The current study emphasizes that seeking feedback and using it has positive impacts on job performance. Do you view work as a social place? Is feedback about your performance extremely important to you? Turns out, you have a big advantage in turning the advice of others into better work!


Brennan K.A., Clark C.L., and Shaver P.R. (1998) Self-report measures of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In: Simpson JA and Rholes WS (eds) Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. New York: Guilford Press, 46-76.

Hazan, C. & Shaver, P.R. (1990). Love and work: An attachment-theoretical perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(2), 270-280.

Wu, C., Parker, S. K., & de Jong, J.P. (2014). Feedback seeking from peers: A positivie strategy for insecurely attached team-workers. Journal of Human Relations, 67(4), 441-464.