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Anxious-Insecure Attachment Style at Work

Updated: Mar 11

Continuing with my deep dive into attachment styles, I'm kicking off 2024 with a series of blogs on attachment styles in the workplace. Do you know how your attachment style affects work relationships? Are you aware of the energy you are spending on navigating work relationships rather than work tasks? Is it difficult for you to hear feedback? Read on to find out if your work attachment style is anxious-insecure.

Two employees sitting and three employees standing, all viewing the same laptop screen

FYI- human-centered communication and trauma-informed communication, nearly the same thing! It's putting the human, the person, at the forefront when communicating anything.

How Anxious-Insecure Attachment Shows Up At Work

There is much discussion about attachment styles in regards to romantic relationships and parenting relationships, however, it’s important to consider our attachment style and how that shows up in workplace settings. Much of contemporary work occurs in a social context. Healthcare work is especially social in that employees work in teams that call for ongoing contact among colleagues, managers, and members of other professions or workgroups. “There is convincing evidence that social relationships at work have a significant impact on individual health, strain, and burnout,” (Day and Leiter, 2014Leiter and Patterson, 2014). The research doesn't lie.

Attachment styles are personal attributes that can play a significant role in understanding the behaviors and performance at work. The workplace is a microcosm of the bigger system in which we live and operate. When people interact regularly with other people, there is high likelihood that behavioral patterns, as a result of our attachment styles, will surface, including in workplace settings. As a quick reminder, anxious-insecure attachment is characterized by strong desires for intimacy combined with doubts and abandonment anxiety. Anxious-insecurely attached folks developed a sense that their caregiver’s emotional state and mood were their responsibility and they had to make extraordinary efforts to “make others’ happy” or get love in return. Enough research on attachment styles has been done to conclude that attachment styles at work are significantly correlated with burnout.

What is burnout? Burnout is a work-related phenomenon that is characterized by a combination of low energy (exhaustion) and low identification (cynicism). Exhaustion and cynicism—or mental distancing—are considered the core parts of burnout. (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Van Rhenen, 2009; Schaufeli & Taris, 2005).

Mental & Emotional Energy

Individual vulnerabilities, such as perfectionism, high self-expectations, emotional instability, and anxious-insecure attachment, can be predictors of the needed effort a person must spend to do well at work. There is a whole other factor with attachment styles at work, which includes the relationship between attachment and engagement with others. Anxious-insecurely attached people have to put their interpersonal skills to use with colleague and leader relationships, often involving much of their time and energy at work. In other words, anxious-insecure attachment increases hypervigilance and anxiety among workplace relationships, therefore leading the anxious-insecurely attached person to work hard, spend lots mental and emotional energy into navigating workplace relationships. This can lead to lower levels of productivity and poor job performance, and poor job satisfaction.

Anxious-insecurely attached folks have a deep-seated fear of interpersonal rejection and their own self-perception of vulnerability to this rejection. Attachment-related anxiety is associated with feelings of low self-worth and insecurity. It might be that individuals high on attachment-related anxiety put too much effort in their work to attract others’ attention and obtain their approval (i.e. external validation that they are doing well and accepted in the workplace). This effort likely depletes their energy resources, and ultimately leads to burnout. This idea that employees are experiencing high levels of burnout at work due to attempting to obtain others’ approval and avoid additional adverse effects on their self-evaluation (meaning further blows to their self-esteem, which can include not disappointing their boss, or employee taking on responsibility for their boss’s mood or behaviors towards them at work) could be at the crux of addressing employee burnout with strategies that actually work. Considering the whole person at work, not just what work tasks or demands are leading to burnout. In fact, much of this information tells me that burnout at work is often relationally-focused rather than workload-focused. There’s something to consider!

In addition, insecure-attachment maladaptive behaviors may become activated in stressful work situations, or when there is conflict between colleagues or between employee and manager, leading to ineffective and poor coping strategies to deal with job stress. Think of this as a nervous system activation (formerly known as a ‘trigger’) kicked up by something at work, while you are at work. It can be pretty difficult to manage this, and continue to work at all, let alone work well.

Those folks who are insecurely attached tend to be more suspicious of their colleagues and less likely to trust or cooperate with them. They may also be more anxious and less engaged with their work, as stated above, because they are expending energy on managing work relationships. Distrust can hurt outcomes at work, as it can lead to employees feeling less connected with their work and more likely to leave the job. Insecurely attached employees tend to be more distrustful of any change, as well. Recently, employees are experiencing even higher levels of anxiety due to digital transformation and potential threat to their job security. This can lead to tension and conflict in the workplace, may ultimately lead to project failure, disengagement in work, and other negative outcomes for the company or agency.

Insights for Employees

External Validation and Approval

For those with an anxious-insecure attachment style, the need for approval and recognition is strong. You might worry about the stability of your relationships and seek constant reassurance. So, this may translate at work as seeking frequent feedback and approval, both from colleagues and leaders. These needs at work usually stem from low self-esteem and high levels of insecurity, worry, and self-doubt. As a solution for their worry, the anxious employee engages in behaviors (and spends energy) constantly seeking approval from their colleagues. It’s likely that all of these worries swirling around interactions with their colleagues increases the person’s risk of workplace burnout. One study cites that anxious-insecure attachment is strongly correlated with “experiencing and instigated workplace incivility, exhaustion, and cynicism.” (2014 survey of more than 1600 employees in Canada).

Excessive and Compulsive Behaviors

In addition to seeking external validation for both their work efforts and social performance, anxious-insecurely attached folks have a fear of upsetting others (which relates back to fears of abandonment by others; i.e. “if I upset people at work, they won’t accept me.”). This fear-based approach to work relationships leads to other counterproductive behaviors—for example, struggling with a compulsion to check email incessantly to make sure everything is ‘okay at work’ and difficulty with saying ‘no’ or setting appropriate work boundaries. This constant cognitive and emotional energy about work, about yourself at work, about your work performance, often leads to excessive and compulsive behaviors at and about work (i.e. the constant email-checking), and if these excessive, and unnecessarily excessive, behaviors at work continue, this in and of itself can lead to burnout.

Receiving Feedback

While they're enthusiastic about their work, folks with anxious-insecure attachment can also become stressed if their efforts go unnoticed, or they receive negative feedback. Anxious individuals also exhibit strong fear of negative feedback, which could be harmful to the already negative view of the self that is so pervasive with these folks. So, it becomes almost survival-like to fit into the group, be liked by everyone, and receive appreciation and praise for their work.

Navigating anxieties and disappointments at work require a lot of energy for the anxious-insecurely attached employee to manage. They already struggle with a disproportionately negative view of themselves and any feedback may be perceived as ‘critical’ or ‘harsh.’ In addition, these folks will frequently wonder and worry about the ‘hidden meaning behind critical feedback’ or overly personalize ‘constructive criticism’ as something that indicates their lack of worth or value as a human. People with anxious-insecure attachment can misinterpret delays in response from their boss or co-workers as rejection. Feeling perceived or actual rejection will absolutely increase anxiety for this person at work. More time spent feeling anxious, having anxious thoughts, about yourself and others at work, lowers productivity, and eats up lots of energy and mental bandwidth.

Other Pertinent Bits

These folks also struggle with persistent mistrust. This can negatively influence their thoughts and views about cooperating with colleagues. Those with anxious-insecure attachment could find it difficult to work on a group project or participate in multidisciplinary team execution of a service, project, or product. They absolutely can engage in these kinds of work activities, and it is easier on the anxious-insecurely attached person’s nervous system to have social support at work. Not only is greater social support associated with encountering fewer distressing demands, but social support buffers the stressful impact of demands when they are encountered. However, uncivil or abusive social encounters at work are exhausting in and of themselves. These toxic work encounters or interactions (obviously) contribute to the employees increasing distress about interacting with others at work, and further incurring social/relational injury from negative social interactions at work.

Healthcare Workplace Setting

All this amplifies if the work environment is a healthcare setting. These settings either directly or indirectly pertain to patient care, and this requires interactions with patients and their families/loved ones. Even if this work generally has positive outcomes, employees regularly encounter strained social interactions with colleagues, other professionals, managers, and patients. These strained or challenging interactions lead to negative individual outcomes for the employee, such as somatic symptoms (pain, headache, GI upset etc.), insomnia, social dysfunction, poor physical health, mental and emotional strain, poor focus and concentration and, eventually, total burnout, which usually results in a leave of absence from work, if not, resignation altogether.

An example: case managers and social workers in mental health settings often get yelled at by patients or family members, blamed for patient issues, hung up on, doors slammed in their face, enduring misogynistic, racist, threatening, among other types, of harmful communication directed at them, and even experience being spit at! (This is not an exaggeration; these are examples from my own and colleagues' work experience). Can you imagine enduring this at work, sometimes week after week, for years, and not eventually reaching burnout? Especially if there is no support at work, just expectation that you keep showing up and doing it anyway? Yeah. We feel the same. IT IS NOT SUSTAINABLE. WE NEED MORE SUPPORT.

If you are a healthcare provider and have identified you have an anxious-insecure attachment style, you are more at-risk to experience workplace burnout. The interpersonal nature of providing care, or working in and among patients in any capacity, increases fear-based concerns about performance, acceptance, and critical feedback. These stressors drop extra levels of wear and tear on the anxious-insecurely attached healthcare employee.

Insights for Leaders

Leaders with an Anxious-Insecure Attachment Style

Those in positions of power or leadership, who also have an anxious-insecure attachment style, are often highly attuned to the needs and emotions of others. This usually makes them excellent communicators and team players and team supporters. However, their people-pleasing tendencies can lead to resentment of their position in power, and making hard decisions or having to say ‘no’ can have a negative effect on their already negative view of themselves, and, over time, you guessed it, burnout is likely.  Burnout can occur with leaders and managers, too, we must not forget they are people too, with past lived experiences too, and these may show up in the workplace for them, too. Anxious-insecurely attached leaders may struggle to assert themselves or ask for promotions and this can lead to feeling undervalued-- which is another blow to the fragile self-esteem of the anxious-insecurely attached person.

 These challenges can manifest as communication difficulties, emotional repression, and even workplace conflicts. Leaders with insecure attachment styles may struggle with balancing their own needs with the needs of their teams, potentially leading to unproductive working relationships and strained workplace dynamics. In addition, executives can become an emotional dumping ground for employees due to the tendency of employees to implicitly recreate early relationships in the workplace, and seeing their boss as an ‘authority’ or ‘parental’ figure. If you are an executive with anxious-insecure attachment, you are particularly sensitive to the emotional dumping from employees, and this can impact job performance and job satisfaction. Positive leader–employee exchange can moderate the indirect effects of anxious-insecure attachment on a person’s work performance, attitude, and productivity within the organization. In other words, positive interactions between leader and employee mitigates the negative effects of anxious-insecure attachment maladaptive behaviors in the workplace, both for leader and employee.

Leaders of Others' with an Anxious-Insecure Attachment Style

Attachment styles, which we know are deeply rooted in early childhood experiences, mostly with our primary caretakers, wield a substantial influence over how individuals react to stress and trauma throughout their lifespan. Understanding attachment-styles and the patterns typically displayed according to the person’s attachment style, is pivotal for leaders in adopting a trauma-informed approach to managing and supervising their employees. Quite often, anxious-insecure attachment originates from traumatic experiences, therefore, making a conscious and intentional effort to consider individual preferences as a result of their attachment style is an essential foundation of a trauma-informed approach. Attachment awareness and understanding aligns with the principle of promoting psychological safety, which is an absolute necessity for engaging in trauma-informed leadership. By tailoring communication and responses to accommodate diverse attachment preferences, leaders foster trust, open dialogue, and afford employees access to safety in their work environment. This approach minimizes nervous system activations and reduces the risk of re-traumatization in the workplace. And THIS should be the goal of every leader, of every organization, in every industry, worldwide.

For leaders who take attachment style into consideration when managing employees, it provides them opportunity to establish secure environments that nurture emotional well-being. Secure environments reduce the anxiety, and the energy it takes to manage the anxiety, of the anxious-insecurely attached person. A reduction in these symptoms, and behaviors associated with these symptoms, not only improves workplace relationships and outcomes, it actually improves the mental, emotional, and physical health of the employee. And when the employee, the person, the whole person that is also an employee in your workplace, has improved mental, emotional, and physical health then they can show up at work better, engage with others at work more easily, spend more energy on the work itself, and it reduces employee dissatisfaction at work, sabotage at work, and burnout at work. And! It will likely reduce call-outs due to being ill, reduce the need to attend numerous medical appointments, and therefore, reduce employee absence, which can and often does, effect projects, deadlines, and outcomes desired by the organization.

Leaders can expand your thinking about your team to include this aspect of their mental paradigm which could help you be more effective. Your team members are whole humans, and leaders, as well as, the organization, both benefit from having employees show up to work as their full human self—with all of their knowledge, skills, emotional intelligence, creativity, cultural diversity, values and wisdom borne out of different life experiences and perspectives. If you are a leader and notice someone on your team not managing time well or not being as productive as you’d like, step back from the day-to-day of how the problem behavior shows up, and think a little bit about the origin. In addition, if the employee is having difficulty in relationships or interactions with others at work, consider if it could be related to their attachment style, rather than labeling them as a “problem” or “difficult” employee.

Cons of Anxious-Insecure Attachment at Work

It could be difficult to work with someone with anxious-insecure attachment because they might exhibit an inability to work on their own. This in turn may result in this employee, or team member, relying heavily on everyone else to be able to finish their own work. You could notice the co-worker with anxious-insecure attachment display less cognitive liveliness and a lower level of emotional energy. This could translate into reduction in levity or humor. You might find it hard to be around them, or to work with them.

A person with anxious-insecure attachment may exhibit the following behaviors at work:

  • Preoccupation with acceptance from the group

  • Seeking approval or external validation from colleagues or boss

  • Strong fear of rejection and receiving negative evaluation by others

  • Conformity to group wishes; difficulty saying ‘no’

  • Overwhelming desire for interpersonal closeness & investment in social relationships  

  • Negative expectations regarding the leader’s behavior  

  • Less ability to work independently and autonomously

  • Over-reliance on the supervisor/leader for guidance and/or assistance with their work

  • Hypersensitivity to feedback; difficulty accepting feedback; views of any feedback as criticism

  • Feeling under-appreciated and dissatisfied

  • Higher burnout levels

  • Counterproductive work behavior and turnover intentions

Pros of Anxious-Insecure Attachment at Work

In terms of work ethic, however, the anxiously attached person is likely to be consistently working on improving their skills or performance, as part of their efforts to be fully accepted. It has been said that the employee with anxious-insecure attachment is seldom a trouble-maker. These folks rarely cause problems or question things in favor of going with the flow which can lead to fewer inconsequential disputes at work, which can lend to a more positive work environment.  Employees with anxious-insecure attachment tend to be hyper-vigilant which often makes them excellent at detecting risks and threats before others. Their concern about pleasing their co-workers and/or boss can lead to efforts to do the work well in order to receive positive feedback and praise. Furthermore, because of their need to be accepted and approved by colleagues and leaders, the anxious-insecurely attached employee is also highly self-reflective and aware of their own shortcomings and weak spots. This can result in their desire to constantly seek ways to improve themselves and their performance, and then become better at their job and strengthen their skills, which has benefits for others and the organization as a whole.

“In several of his research papers, Ein-Dor has demonstrated various perks of having anxiously attached employees in the team. Due to their hyper-vigilance (extreme sensitivity and alertness to the surroundings), individuals with an anxious attachment style might be superheroes when it comes to detecting threats, risks, and deceit.”

A person with anxious-insecure attachment may exhibit the following behaviors at work:

  • Better in detecting and responding to risks  

  • More accurate in detecting deceit

  • Create less friction in the workplace by going with the flow

  • More alert to their own potential deficiencies

  • Hyper‐vigilant about seeking ways to improve → a positive effect on performance

  • More willing to address their weaknesses

Conclusion: What now?

Trauma-Informed Leadership

Ultimately, attachment styles are not just theories. They're a practical way to understand why and how we relate to our coworkers and leaders the way we do. As a leader, by acknowledging and respecting these diverse styles as a result of diverse human lived experiences, you can create a work environment that is more inclusive and accepting of differences and this type of environment nurtures everyone's potential.

Those placed in leadership roles can adopt a workplace culture where leadership embodies supportive and empathic qualities. When leaders act as secure bases, employees feel valued and respected, enabling them to express themselves without fear. This is trauma-informed leadership; trauma-informed communication, action, and decision-making skills at the helm. Such leadership styles create an environment of trust, encouraging employees to take risks, collaborate, and share ideas openly. As a result, teams are more likely to innovate, problem-solve effectively, and achieve common goals, leading to a more positive and productive work environment overall. As well, employees feel supported, cared about as humans not just employees, and operating from a trauma-informed perspective as a leader reduces employee illness and absence, job dissatisfaction, burnout, and turnover.

Practical Steps

Cultivating secure attachment in the workplace is a transformative journey that leaders can embark on, reaping rewards in the form of enhanced leadership and improved employee engagement. By using trauma-informed practices, potentially using Attachment Theory as a guide, leaders can learn how to make better decisions, identify motivations and triggers, communicate better with others, and deal with conflict more effectively. They display humanness in their role as a leader and offer humanness to their employees. The reason this creates a more harmonious work environment for everyone is because utilizing trauma-informed communication and decision-making skills reduces the pathway to causing further harm to folks.

“Trauma-informed communication, observable actions, and decision-making skills assume every human we encounter could have a lived experience of trauma. Using these skills all the time, having human-centered practices as the foundation, increases pathways for safety, reduces pathways to further harm, and offers inclusion and acceptance for all humans.” -Sarah O’Brien, LCSW, LCSW-C

If you identify that someone you work with has an anxious-insecure attachment style, being mindful about providing them with frequent reassurance and positive reinforcement will help them perform with greater confidence and it could strengthen your working relationship. It’s not to say you are responsible for ensuring your co-worker or employee feels confident at work, but you could play a part in facilitating that experience for that person just by being more aware of how trauma and early attachment effects current behaviors.

Leaders, founders, and CEOs can increase recognition of the significance of attachment styles in the workplace by organizing workshops and open conversations and feedback sessions. Leading the discussion and awareness with employees is a sign of an effective, trauma-informed leader. Educating employees about these styles empowers them to understand their own behavior patterns and those of their colleagues. This awareness lends to greater empathy, reduction in misunderstandings, and a more supportive network. Through these discussions, workshops, webinars, and courses employees can learn to adapt their communication and collaboration methods, leading to stronger connections and improved teamwork. In addition, we increase DEI and safety for ALL people in the workplace.

In the end, all of the research about attachment styles highlights the fact that employees with anxious-insecure attachment need more care from the organization. This is not a pitfall, character defect, or weakness. This is recognition of someone’s lived experience that resulted in anxious-insecure attachment in social relationships, and how that presents itself in the workplace. Extending more support and care for these employees absolutely changes the current status quo in most, if not all, work settings. AND THAT’S THE POINT. Adopting trauma-informed practices as the rule rather than the exception increases the quotient on humanity…and likely to lead to collective healing. Healing = comfort, safety, rest which leads to creativity, empathy, and a feeling of wholeness.

For more, check out these resources:

Find out your attachment style here

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