Rock climbing is challenging, puzzling, and continuously changing. When we are connected with the rope where someone is belaying us, we are capable of taking the risks, finding the right holes, and moving up. The belayer knows when to give us more rope so that we can tackle the spots that are far from our reach and, at the same time, knows to keep a strong grip on the rope knowing we may fall.
This dance of tightening and letting go goes on at work with the people we depend on and the people who depend on us. The more secure our connection, the more risk we take, which allows us to grow, learn and contribute.
Attachment theory posits that our reactions and behaviors are shaped through our key connections. These connections are in essence, the rope which begins with our primary caregivers and is strengthened through our lifetime, forming secure attachments critical to our well-being. Secure attachments can affect everything from romantic relationships to workplace interactions with colleagues.
Take an example when three members of Amy’s project team suddenly resigned, her fire alarm ignited with anxiety and mounting fear. With looming deadlines and a shrinking labor force, she felt panicked, shaky, and overwhelmed. Her heart was racing and she felt as if she had lost the ground under her feet. Fortunately, having spent time building secure attachment with her bosses, she felt comfortable approaching them for support.
Attachment science tells us that in moments of great stress, coregulation, rather than self-soothing, is actually the most efficient strategy for regaining one’s emotional balance. The concept of we are better together in sharing the load is, indeed, a psychological fact. The studies show that secure attachment with people such as our bosses carries a significant impact in calming our nervous system. Thus, when Amy was feeling panicked and overwhelmed, her bosses were able to serve as co-regulators of her emotions, reducing a sense of mounting fear into a small hill.
Attachment in the workplace carries additional benefits such as engagement, improved performance, and ethical behavior. If leaders and employees know how to address emotions in the workplace, it enables safety and creativity. Relationships require consistent nurturing of deepening emotional connection where emotions are recognized, accepted, and validated.
Don’t ignore the signs of disengagement and habitual responses of ignoring emotions. Amy’s sense of her value and confidence emerges directly from her bosses’ view of her abilities. Creating secure attachment deepens the emotional engagement and builds loyalty, alliance, and trust.
Do recognize the impact people have on each other when they work together. Prioritize emotional regulation and psychological safety. Be actively present and attuned, transparent, and accepting to reduce the chaos and restore emotional stability in self and others.
In our example, as Amy shared her feelings with her bosses, they responded by making room for her vulnerability and emotions without assuming ulterior motivations. Such experience, particularly in our most vulnerable moments, strengthen our bonds and redefine our relationships, creating a secure base to build our confidence to thrive.
With gratitude and care,
Lola Gershfeld and the EmC Team
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat.Psychological Science, 17, 1032–1039.
Paulssen, M. (2009). Attachment Orientations in Business-to-Business Relationships. Psychology & Marketing, 26(6), 507–533.
Yip, J., Ehrhardt, K., Black, H., & Walker, D. O. (2018). Attachment theory at work: A reviewand directions for future research.Journal of Organizational Behavior,39(2), 185-198.