Updated: Sep 29, 2022
By: Jocelyn Steinke
A good relationship with a manager can go miles towards an employee’s health, career development, and well-being. On the flip side, a contentious or disconnected relationship with a manager can cause trauma, stress, anxiety, and high rates of turnover. There are countless articles examining the pros and cons of different leadership styles, benefits packages, federal and state laws, and company policies, but they’re all missing a key aspect of the workplace. Specifically, they’re neglecting the way attachment styles affect workplace relationships.
Attachment is the pattern of thoughts and behaviors that occur within relationships. Attachment styles are based on how well our needs were met when we were children, and can be changed with the help of therapists and supportive, healthy relationships. When attachment styles start to interfere with success at work it could be partially due to the manager’s leadership style. Attachment styles and leadership styles can cause conflict and resentment when they result in each person’s needs being neglected. Here’s an example:
I had a manager who I had a good relationship with initially, but as it progressed, I found myself rage-eating nachos and trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. My manager had a coaching leadership style, and was very relational, too relational for my comfort most of the time. Something about how she practiced her coaching style triggered my attachment style. I started slipping into a “child” role, and, like visiting my mom and sister, slipping into this role made me feel defensive leading to a cycle of defiance and anger after the fact (cue the nachos). Armed with this new understanding of the dynamics I was bringing to this relationship, I started failing forward with my therapist and mentor’s support.
There are four attachment styles, and leadership styles can have positive or negative effects on any of them. If the leader’s own attachment style is part of the issue it can be catastrophic for your relationship and your career. Therefore, it is imperative that leaders know their attachment styles as well as their leadership style. Honestly assessing your attachment style, and utilizing a therapist and/or mentor to change the behaviors associated with that style can dramatically improve the workplace. Doing this kind of regular assessment as a manager can help to create psychological safety and trust with the employee.
Relationships between managers and employees who understand their attachment styles can bring stability and balance to the workplace. This doesn’t mean being friends (with your manager/report, hand holding, or even liking each other It does mean that both people have a clear view of what is expected of them. It also doesn’t mean sharing attachment styles or triggers with each other, as the goal of knowing your attachment style is to work on your own reactivity.
It does mean gaining insight into behaviors that negatively affect the workplace.
If both manager and employee are aware of their triggers and have worked on their attachment issues, it can lead to a healthier, more balanced relationship that benefits everyone. It’s not an instant process, it takes work and time and some failure. Thankfully, in the process, there are nachos.