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Disorganized Attachment and Secure Attachment at Work

In my blog article series on attachment, spanning the last 5-6 months, comes to its conclusion as I discuss Secure Attachment and Disorganized Attachment in the workplace. Let’s start with disorganized attachment and we’ll wrap up with secure attachment facts.

The disorganized (or fearful-avoidant) attachment style is rarer than the other attachment styles, typically occurring in about 7% of the population.

To view any of my previous blog articles on attachment, click on the title you're interested in!

One last time...Quick Attachment Styles Review

Let's re-familiarize ourselves a little bit with each of the other attachment styles. Attachment styles develop as a result of our interactions and feelings of trust, safety, and consistency with our primary caretakers. If you want to dive deeper into the history of attachment theory, early experiments and the four different attachment styles, you can check out my previous blogs! (all links above). Briefly, Anxious-Insecure attachment develops when parents are inconsistent in meeting a child’s needs. This misattunement to the child’s emotional needs, sometimes being there and other times being distracted or unavailable, leaves the child feeling insecure in relationship with their parents. On the other hand, Anxious-Avoidant attachment can develop for several reasons, including childhood trauma or neglect, inconsistent caregiving, or overly critical parenting. This child has learned not to express their needs and not to expect their parents to meet their needs. As adults, anxious-avoidant folks tend to move away, and shut down with relational closeness, and anxious-insecure folks tend to move towards others, bidding for closeness when there is distance.

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachment, also known as fearful-avoidant attachment (I know, could these titles be more similar? It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish between attachment styles when all of their names feel the same!), is a complex pattern of behavior characterized by both high levels of anxiety and avoidance in relationships. A child becomes stuck between deactivation, since the caregiver cannot be a source of reassurance, and hyperactivation, since the presence of the frightening caregiver constantly triggers attachment needs. The child desperately needs comfort but has learned that their caregiver cannot give it to them. They often feel stuck between reaching out and not reaching out when they have a relational need. Also, caregivers who use their children for their own emotional needs may inflict damage on their children without realizing it. This is making the dependent child responsible for the parent’s feelings, and responsible for regulating their parent’s emotions. The child will learn others’ needs should come first and the child will also learn that their needs do not matter as much as others. If you move through life believing your needs do not matter as much as other people’s needs, this will certainly affect your experience in relationships, as well as, how you show up in relationships, including, yep, you guessed it, at work.

Disorganized Attachment is also commonly called Fearful-Avoidant Attachment, as it has elements of both anxious-avoidant attachment style and anxious-insecure attachment style.

For Employees

Folks with disorganized attachment often hold a negative view of self and others, fearing both closeness and autonomy. This creates problems in learning to identify their own needs as separate from others. This also causes unhealthy dependency on others to function in life.  Because these folks have such difficulty navigating relationships in a healthy way, they engage in unhelpful social behaviors, such as, hold grudges, avoid difficult conversations, and engage in people pleasing. Individuals with this pattern tend to switch between anxious and avoidant behaviors. This often makes it difficult for people around them to predict how their disorganized co-worker, or employee, will act: they never know what’s coming next. People who get attached in a disorganized way oscillate from two biological drives whenever the opportunity to attach comes about in life: the need to belong (to love and connect with others) and the need to survive (to protect oneself). These folks feel conflicted about how to behave in relationships, how to interact with people without getting hurt or rejected, and then often appear confusing and difficult to connect with by others. These folks likely display these same contradictory and confusing behaviors at work, especially if they work with a team.

Usually, the disorganized individual will switch between high anxiety and high avoidance. Therefore, their behavior in the workplace is often ambiguous and contradictory. They may be on top of tasks and assignments one week, and then withdrawn and avoidant of work responsibilities the next week. This oscillation could be more frequent if this person has to interact with, work with, and regularly engage other people. They act in ways that protect themselves from rejection and pain. Feeling angry and aggressive towards their rejecting and unresponsive caregivers, this anger can be displayed towards attachment figures (like supervisors and leaders) and sometimes even transferred to other ‘innocent’ people (co-workers and colleagues), as well. A co-worker, or boss, could get caught in the crosshairs of this aggression, even if they didn’t do anything to the disorganized attached person. They also struggle with criticism, whether real or perceived.

While individuals with ‘organized’ anxious attachments (i.e., avoidant and insecure) have consistent and comprehensible triggers, disorganized individuals have triggers that are incoherent and complicated because of their internal conflict. Those with a disorganized attachment style experience identity confusion, difficulties with emotion regulation, low self-esteem, substance misuse, and mental health problems, including Borderline Personality Disorder, which can have an impact on how this person shows up in the workplace. They will appear and sound negative, frequently, if not most of the time, which could make it difficult for others at work to be around them, further isolating (and rejecting) the person with disorganized attachment. This isolation will likely trigger anxious or avoidant reactions. And the cycle repeats.

For Leaders

Unfortunately, the existing research has not focused much on disorganized attachment in general, and especially not how it affects people and behavior in the workplace. This is likely due to expressions of both the anxious and the avoidant attachment style in it, which makes it hard to observe and measure. Actually, applying attachment theory to the context of the workplace is also a relatively new topic of interest, and now, research on the matter is growing rapidly. Attachment styles might have a strong potential to explain and predict one’s role and experience in the workplace.

They might also predict the social dynamics and the quality of leadership in a company. Leaders with a disorganized attachment style have the potential to damage employees and ruin morale and productivity. As we have discussed before, leaders, supervisors, bosses, CEOs, mimic the attachment figure in workplaces, and the way they lead has a significant impact on the people who work with and under them. Just as with parents’ who have a disorganized attachment style, leaders with this style are more likely to perpetrate further abuse and trauma with their aggression, difficulty with effective communication, and inconsistent and unpredictable behavior. Inconsistent support on the side of the boss can result in the activation of the attachment system in employees. As a result of inconsistent leader support, the anxious employee can become clingier and more preoccupied with seeking attention; and the avoidant employee can become more distant and aloof towards the leader. In both cases, insensitivity from the leader can cause counter-productivity on the side of employees. When leaders are avoidant, they are perceived as insensitive and less available, which might also cause their employees to experience a decrease in well-being over time. Generally, when leaders are anxious, they lack ability to develop the independence necessary to be a strong leader.

Cons of Disorganized (or fearful-avoidant) Attachment at Work

Ultimately, interacting with, working with, or being led by a person with disorganized attachment (who also hasn’t healed from this attachment and likely has yet to do their own work for regulating themselves better) is not ideal. They are difficult to communicate with, they are unpredictable and inconsistent in their behaviors which makes them unreliable, they struggle with trust, and have negative view of others.

A person with disorganized attachment may exhibit the following behaviors at work:

  • Heightened sensitivity to stress

  • Feeling criticized (either real or imagined)

  • Unsure how to navigate people and relationships

  • Cautious and suspicious of others

  • Holding inconsistent & negative views of others and relationships with others

  • Engaging in misconduct

  • Unstable identity/sense of self, unpredictable mental state, extreme mood swings

  • Difficulty believing people will like them for who they are

  • Avoid proximity to others, and lack of a coherent approach to interacting with others

  • Impulsivity

  • Having contradictory intentions regarding working relationships

  • Seek distance and independence AND clingy and attention-seeking behavior

  • Difficulties with communication and inconsistent behavior

  • “Approach and Avoid” behavior

  • People pleasing (go along with whatever other people want or agree to things they may not agree with to make things easier in the moment)

  • Struggling with mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, substance abuse, Borderline Personality Disorder

Pros of Disorganized (or fearful-avoidant) Attachment at Work

There are few pros to working with a person who has a disorganized attachment. All in all, these people are difficult people with whom to be in relationship. However, it’s important to remember, the difficulties and insecurities with attachment developed because the needs of these folks were not met early in life. In fact, these folks likely suffered from abuse and neglect from their primary caretakers. These resulting thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are coping mechanisms that individuals use to deal with and alleviate emotional distress, reduce anxiety, and restore a sense of control. There is nothing wrong with these people. Something happened to these people. And the stuff that happened shaped who they became. So, try to extend some grace and space to these co-workers and employees, and work to avoid taking their behaviors and reactions as personal to you; it’s personal to them.

Practical Steps to Healing from a Disorganized Attachment

  • Although you can do a lot of this work individually, therapy is recommended for people with a disorganized attachment style.

  • A therapist can help you to identify your unhelpful beliefs and behaviors, examine your triggers, navigate challenges, and offer comfort.

  • Practice self-kindness.

  • Accept where you are now and focus on finding ways to heal and move forward. When you accept yourself as you are, with both your strengths and imperfections, you will cultivate the power and motivation to transform.

  • Develop self-awareness.

  • Use grounding techniques to help you to manage your emotions, both in general and in the moments when you are feeling triggered.

  • Mentally revisit your childhood and engage with your child-self with understanding, compassion, and support. 

  • Grow self-esteem and self-worth.

  • Establish and maintain healthy and effective boundaries.

Secure Attachment in the Workplace

Secure attachment is just that: secure! Those with this attachment style saw their primary caregiver as a safe home base. From that safety zone they could explore their world, feeling confident in themselves, and securely attached with ability to return to their caregivers whenever they had a need, and that need was addressed and they were cared for. These folks end up trusting others and feel comfortable relying on their close network of people.

For Employees

Having a secure attachment style benefits all relationships and social contexts, and work is no exception. Research in secure attachment shows you’re more likely to do your work well and fully complete the tasks assigned to you. Secure employees tend to have it easier when it comes to interpersonal relationships at work – be it with colleagues, supervisors, or leaders. Their coworkers or subordinates see them as a valuable member of the team or organization. Others feel this is someone they can trust. People with a secure attachment style have higher job satisfaction overall. They have and display more trust towards others, both colleagues and leaders. They view others, and their intentions, through a positive lens. They also have a positive, balanced view of themselves.

In addition, folks with a secure attachment style, effectively set and maintain healthy boundaries, both in interpersonal relationships and at/with work. They tend to be more comfortable saying ‘no’ if they don’t have capacity or expertise. They are not interested in competing with their co-workers, and they don’t worry about their own failure at work. These folks are confident in themselves and their abilities, they know what strengths they possess to bring to the table. They have good time management skills.  People with a secure attachment report better well-being and fewer symptoms of illness (physical and mental), as compared to avoidant, anxious, and disorganized attached employees.

“People with a secure attachment style take tasks as they come, do what they can, and easily address any issues that come up at work. They work hard and do not fear saying no when they feel they need to. They know they are capable, and they are confident that others will respond well to them.”

For Leaders

Secure attachment in both employees and leaders tends to have many benefits in the workplace. Essentially, secure leaders act as secure parents, demonstrating empathy and consideration for their employees. They also are more likely to be consistent in behaviors and responses, which increase comfort and access to safety for their employees. Those with secure attachment may enter organizations with very positive implicit leadership theories. Accordingly, leaders with secure attachment may be likewise responsive to the individualized, nuanced (and at times, emotional) needs of employees, providing sensitivity and support when needed. In addition, secure attachment has been linked to leader behavior, such as, individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation. Employees, or followers, of this type of leader convey positive regard by being receptive and attentive toward leaders.

Secure leaders create secure, and predictable, work environments, usually for all people. They are well-liked and treat others fairly. Their employees desire to do a good job for them. Morale and job satisfaction are ranked higher on teams with a secure leader at the helm. Securely attached individuals make the best leaders because they can sustain their focus on work objectives to get the job done and still be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. These leaders are believed to show concern and care about both their employees’ well-being and their development.

Cons of Secure Attachment at Work

I think by this point we all know that secure colleagues make the best leaders and the healthiest and most satisfied employees. So, really, there are very few, if any cons, to having this kind of attachment style. And ultimately, that makes sense. These folks are the ones who came up in healthy homes and are well-adjusted, productive, well-functioning members of society. They are secure in and of themselves, they are secure with others and in relationships, they are secure with leaders.

Currently, I could not find research discussing any cons in the workplace as a result of secure attachment.

Pros of Secure Attachment at Work

Of course, there are many benefits to being a securely attached person at work. And many benefits to all the people around this securely attached person at work. Basically, someone that is securely attached, should be demonstrating the healthiest behaviors among folks at work. They do their work, and do it well, without killing themselves or overextending. They interact easily and positively with co-workers and supervisors. They are satisfied with their job, and other people, and generally have a positive demeanor that boosts morale for everyone in the workplace.

A person with secure attachment may exhibit the following behaviors at work:

  • Can form, and maintain, strong bonds with everyone at work

  • Colleagues perceive them as valuable group members

  • Least likely to put off work

  • Least likely to have difficulty completing tasks 

  • Least likely to fear failure

  • Least likely to fear rejection from coworkers

  • More likely to show trust towards the leaders and their intentions, as well as trust towards co-workers and colleagues

  • Exhibit high satisfaction with their job, working conditions and coworkers

  • Better well-being and fewer symptoms of illness (physical and mental)

  • Possess effective time management skills

  • Comfortable prioritizing tasks and asking for help when they need it

  • Comfortable setting healthy boundaries

  • Comfortable pushing back when necessary

  • Do not often engage in fear-based behavior

  • Easy-going

  • Competent

  • Help boost morale at work


Conclusion: What now?

Trauma-Informed Leadership

Well, according to all these blog articles and all the research I’ve done on this topic, the best trauma-informed leader is also the most securely attached leader. Now, if you weren’t one of the lucky ones who had predictable and loving households growing up, don’t be discouraged! (I wasn’t one of the lucky ones either, and I’ve had to work on myself and address lingering effects of negative childhood experiences and trauma to become more self-aware, more informed, and more able to apply trauma-informed skills). And that means you can do the same! Not only will healing from your insecure attachment style (avoidant, anxious, disorganized) benefit you at work, it benefits you as a human, a whole human with many parts, pieces and nuances. Healing from insecure attachment will reduce fight/flight/fear/fawn(people pleasing) responses which is good news for your nervous system. Healing from insecure attachment increases positive health outcomes and extends the life expectancy by reducing physical and mental illness. If you are a leader and desire to be more trauma-informed, I encourage you to consider how secure you feel in relationships with others, in close proximity with others, in conflict with others, in receiving feedback or critique from others. Also consider how well you can recognize, and then regulate, your emotions, how well you communicate with others, and how well you care for yourself to avoid frequent illness or symptom activation. Being an effective trauma-informed leader is more about you as a person than who, how, where, or why you lead.

Practical Steps

For those with a secure attachment style, stay secure, but be aware. Regularly ask for direct feedback so if there is something that you need to work on, you can make changes. Also, if you notice something seems really off, for example a big downgrade in the quality of communication with your manager, don’t dismiss it as, “Oh, she is just stressed.” Do a quick follow-up either in person or via email, saying something like, “I noticed that we’re not communicating as well as in the past. Is there anything I’ve done that’s contributed to that shift?” Being proactive at times is better than being easy-going. Don’t become complacent just because things don’t seem as difficult for you.

Attachment style is not the only factor influencing your time management; however, it may play a significant role. As with attachment style in your personal life, attachment style at work can vary based on situation or circumstance. In one job or with one particular person or project, you may have a more anxious attachment style, and in another circumstance, you may display more secure characteristics. Wherever you find yourself, improving self-awareness, learning to be mindful in the moment, practicing quality communication skills, and understanding what you need to stay grounded and well are not only good for your workplace engagement, but excellent skills to live a value-aligned, fulfilling life.

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Sarah is not only a psychotherapist, she is also a trauma-informed life coach and consultant. You can schedule a free discovery call to determine fit for working together: Sarah's Calendar

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