Behind Every Good Leader #2: Leadership and Attachment Style


My last post described the early childhood conditions in which secure, anxious, and avoidant attachment styles develop. Today, I want to talk about how our attachment style manifests itself in adulthood, most notably in the workplace.

Secure Attachment: Adults who have developed a secure attachment style operate out of a core belief that other people are trustworthy, and they are worthy of receiving love, acceptance, and belonging. They are emotionally intelligent, understanding the emotional experiences of both themselves and others. They are cooperative when working on teams but not a doormat. They approach conflict with curiosity and are good at both leading and following. According to research, leaders with a secure attachment style have the following characteristics:

  • They view themselves as more effective than those with anxious or avoidant styles.
  • They are capable of dealing with new situations.
  • They work to enhance their employees’ self-esteem, competence, and mastery.
  • They are more likely to possess self-awareness, relational transparency, balanced information processing, and an internal moral perspective.

Secure adults have a positive approach to work. They do their work in a timely manner and do not put off tasks. They are not likely to fear failure or rejection from peers or supervisors. They tend to be the most high-performing workers, but they do not allow work to interfere with their personal relationships. These people enjoy vacations! They are highly engaged in their work but do not fear retribution when they take time for themselves.

Anxious Attachment: Anxiously attached adults believe that other people are capable but unwilling or inconsistent in responding to their needs and that, as a result, they must be unworthy or flawed. They have difficulty showing empathy to others because they are too overwhelmed with their own emotional experience. They overemphasize relationships, often having exaggerated expectations of those who would describe them as acquaintances at best. In their intimate relationships, they engage in angry outbursts when their needs are not being met. Partners and friends may describe them as clingy, needy, critical, or demanding. Research indicates that leaders with an anxious attachment style engage in the following behaviors in the workplace:

  • They are inconsistent and unresponsive with their employees.
  • They are particularly vulnerable to organizational stress, during which they seek security from their followers through manipulation (i.e., angry outbursts or feigning neediness to gain sympathy).

Anxious adults are motivated primarily by approval, in both personal and professional relationships. They constantly worry that others will not be impressed with their work and constantly seek reassurance. When there are problems in their personal relationships, their work is significantly impacted because they become overwhelmed by their negative emotions.

Avoidant Attachment: Adults with an avoidant attachment style believe other people cannot be trusted. Therefore, they must depend on themselves for everything. They do their best to avoid feelings…both their own and others. They avoid conflict and have a difficult time being emotionally connected. According to researchers, leaders with this attachment style look confident and capable but have serious weaknesses:

  • Their independence is compulsive, and as a result, they have difficulty with developing their employees and succession planning.
  • They are controlling and self-serving, withholding support from their followers.
  •  If a project fails, they are quick to blame others rather than taking responsibility for themselves.
  • They are resistant to organizational change.

Avoidant adults feel nervous when they are not at work. They prefer to work alone, and they allow work to interfere with their personal relationships. Even when they are stuck, they do not ask for help.

As is clear from the above descriptions, our attachment styles significantly impact our behavior in the workplace. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our closest intimate relationships hold the most influence over our core beliefs about the trustworthiness of others and our own worth. Although making changes in your workplace behavior alone may help you to achieve temporary improvements, those behavior changes must be accompanied by change on a deeper level focusing on your emotional and relational context.

Now that you have a basic understanding of attachment theory and how attachment style manifests itself in the workplace, we will shift our focus in my next post to CHANGE! I will speak to how you can develop a deeper understanding of the emotional and relational factors that motivate you and provide suggestions that will help you to increase the security of your intimate relationships.


Jaime GoffComment