Attachment at Work

How Your Approach to Work May Have Started Young

Take a moment to think about your employees' working styles. Who are the ones that prefer to work alone rather than in teams? What about those that go the extra mile to receive praise from you, the manager? Or what about the employees that are more inclined to go on a date rather than pull an all-nighter at the office? Although these work preferences may seem distinctly adult in nature, surprisingly, they may have been shaped through early childhood relationships.

Let’s consider an important study by Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver. In their study of working adults, Hazan and Shaver (1990) found that attachment theory can explain adults’ approach to work and relationships. Attachment is a well-established theory in psychology that examines the dynamics of caregiving relationships across the lifespan, primarily focusing on early-life parental attachment quality. Specifically, a toddler's “exploration” and “attachment” behaviors exist in a balance and explain why we grow up to be the way we are.

  • Exploration is when a baby examines his or her surroundings. An example of this is when the baby crawls across the living room floor, briefly pausing to investigate the spring door stop.
  • Attachment is the pull that draws a baby back towards his or her caregiver. We've all experienced holding the newest member of the family in our arms, only for them to start screeching in the hopes they will be returned to their parent.

Researchers have expanded this theory to categorize all infants into one of three attachment orientations: Secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant.

  • Securely attached babies receive consistent love and attention from their parents. This allows them to confidently explore their surroundings and the world around them while their parent is present. Generally, they grow upset when their parent leaves and are happy to see them return.
  • Anxiously/ambivalently attached babies, however, receive inconsistent attention from their caregivers. This creates a fixation on attention rather than exploration. When their caregiver departs, the baby grows distressed, but is neutral, or, ambivalent, upon their return.
  • Avoidantly attached babies are ignored by their caregivers and aren't as inclined to explore their surroundings. The baby typically doesn't show any emotion when the caregiver leaves or returns.

Babies with different attachment styles grow into adults with different orientations towards work. In adulthood, “exploration” refers to work, and “attachment” indicates relationships with coworkers and significant others. As you may have guessed, the securely attached babies become adults with high levels of job satisfaction and value relationships more than work. In contrast, the anxious/ambivalent babies turn into adults who are often preoccupied with their coworkers’ opinions of them—they report feelings of job insecurity and worry that coworkers don’t appreciate them. And what about those avoidant babies? They tend to become obsessive workaholics who are highly satisfied with their jobs but dissatisfied with coworkers. They are the group least likely to take vacations and most likely to emphasize work over personal relationships.

These research findings explain a bit about why employees might be the way that they are and can help guide managers and human resource departments on how to treat them at work. For example, does John like to work on teams and receive frequent feedback? It may be beneficial to check in with him on a weekly basis. On the other hand, frequent feedback may irritate Doris, who prefers to work alone and performs well under pressure.

Findings from this study have implications for the hiring process as well. Interviews are a great way to gauge how candidates approach work; it may be helpful to include some questions about work orientation to get a sense of whether they’d be a good match for the culture that exists within the organization.

In sum, employees are like a bunch of grown-up babies, and you, the boss, can be considered the parent. Managing employees is a complex task; the more you know about each employee, the better you can match them with the right project.

 Reference:

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