Behind Every Good Leader #1: A Primer on Attachment Theory

In my previous post, I wrote about the importance of leaders’ most intimate relationships in providing them with the confidence to take risks and make difficult decisions. I mentioned the importance of early childhood experiences, stating:

If we risk and are rewarded with attunement and responsiveness, our fear subsides, and we have courage to risk in the future. If we risk and receive in return rejection or criticism, our fears are confirmed. As a result, we bury those fears deeper so as not to experience rejection again.

There are two theoretical foundations that most influence the way I see the world and the humans who live in it: attachment theory and systems theory. We’ll save systems theory for another time, but in this post, I want to offer a primer on attachment theory.

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby, beginning in the late 1960s with his work continuing well into the 1980s. The basic premise of attachment theory, which has become one of the most influential psychological theories, is that human beings are hardwired for connection and engage in attachment-seeking behaviors from the time they are born. During the first 18 months of life, we learn a great deal that we do not explicitly remember. The most significant thing we learn is whether or not other humans are trustworthy, and this learning is dependent upon how our caregivers respond to our attachment-seeking behaviors. Based on caregiver responses, we develop one of three predominant attachment styles: secureanxious, or avoidant.

Secure Attachment: Individuals who develop a secure attachment style have caregivers during early childhood who are responsive to their needs. When this baby cries, her father comes to comfort her. Her caregivers also respond to her bids for positive interaction, such as when she smiles, giggles, or squeals with delight. Because her parents consistently respond to her, she learns that other humans are basically trustworthy. She learns that when she becomes distressed, she can ask for help and reliably receive it. She also learns that she can get her needs for connection met not just with cries for help but also through prosocial means of engagement, such as smiling and laughing. As she grows, she has the confidence to venture out into the world because she knows she always has a secure base to return to.

Anxious Attachment: Those who are anxiously attached experience caregivers who are inconsistent in responding to their needs in early childhood. When he cries out for comfort, this baby’s mother sometimes responds and sometimes doesn’t. When she does respond, it is often exaggerated. The problem is that he can’t predict what makes the difference. He knows his mother is capable of responding to his needs but is confused about why she ignores him when he is most hungry, tired, and afraid. So he tries harder to get her attention. He cries longer and louder in an effort to get the attention he needs. As a result of these experiences, he learns that others are capable but unwilling to respond to him. This is internalized into a belief that he is unworthy of consistent, caring responses from others. When the time comes to venture out into the world for exploration, he is timid and lacks confidence. He is afraid that if he goes too far, no one will be there when he needs to return home.

Avoidant Attachment: Individuals who develop an avoidant attachment style have early childhood caregivers who are unresponsive to their needs. No one responds to this baby’s cries for help. When she is afraid at night, no one comes to comfort her. She attempts to get the attention she needs for a little while but eventually learns that her attempts are futile. She eventually stops crying because she knows no one will come. She learns that people are untrustworthy, and as a result, she must rely on herself. As she ventures out into the world, she knows she has nothing to return to. She may look confident, but her distrust of others leaves her detached and lonely.

A few caveats about attachment styles:

  1. Our early childhood experiences have an incredible influence on who we become as adults. Thankfully, however, change is possible even in the event that one’s childhood was less than ideal. More about that in a future post!
  2. Research indicates that most of us are generally secure in our attachment style. Even those who are secure, however, tend to look either more anxious or more avoidant in our behavior when we are under stress.
  3. Our attachment style/behavior is significantly impacted and changed by our relationships with other people throughout our lives.

Does one of these attachment styles and its accompanying beliefs resonate with your experience more than the others? How might your attachment style have an impact on who you are as a leader? Stay tuned for my next post to gain additional insight on these questions.

Jaime GoffComment