How our need for attachment drives workplace engagement — or disengagement
  • leadership
  • Blog post

How our need for attachment drives workplace engagement — or disengagement

Carlos, a senior training executive, was puzzled. The previous year, his company had asked two project managers, Bill and Renata, to lead teams. Since then, Bill’s team performance had been mediocre and Renata’s world class. Why?

Carlos asked Bill and Renata if he could observe them for a month – talk to their teams and others who interacted with them, and be a fly on the wall in meetings.

During the 30 days, Carlos made a few notes:

  1. Bill had lost six team members over the two years; Renata had lost no one
  2. In Bill’s team meetings, people hesitated to speak up and avoided conflict, while Renata’s team enjoyed conflict over ideas and debated issues without rancor
  3. Bill’s team worked 9-to-5; Renata’s didn’t pay much attention to the clock

At the end of the month, Carlos made one final note: “Renata seems to have a trusting bond with her team. Bill does not.”

Seeking a safe haven

Carlos was correct in feeling that Renata’s trusting bond with her team was significant. His intuition is supported by a psychological concept called “attachment theory.” The theory is based on the notion that in ancestral times, offspring who stayed close to caregivers survived better than those who didn’t. So due to genetic selection, modern humans are driven to seek security by attaching themselves to a group.

No surprise, we carry this instinct into the work world. We seek a safe haven by attaching ourselves to a team led by a person we perceive as competent and trustworthy. When we have this sense of security and belonging, the emotional energy that might otherwise be used to cope with fear of rejection or destructive conflict is channeled to “the work.” We’re more engaged and more productive.

We’ve all seen disengaged teams like Bill’s, where people do what’s required but no more. Weak leaders often blame the team: “If I had better people, or I could pay more, I’d get better results.” But the problem isn’t the team; it’s the leader.

3 triggers of disengagement

Through the lens of attachment theory, let’s look at three triggers that weaken bonds between leaders and employees, cause disengagement, and lead to poor results.

Trigger #1: Emotional unavailability.

When somebody came to talk casually with Bill, he signaled that he had no time for personal matters. He felt that most meetings were a waste of time, so he rarely met with his entire team. Bill thought he was being business-like and efficient. But these traits distress employees, who constantly wonder, “What’s the boss thinking?” “Is everything okay?” “Am I doing something wrong?” Renata, by contrast, welcomed free exchanges with team members. She inquired about a team member’s family, or some aspect of the project they were working on. She understood that her success depended on the bond she had with each team member. By showing interest in their lives and work, Renata made them feel secure.

Trigger #2: Being a magnifier rather than an insulator.

When stress arose, Bill magnified it. One day when a senior manager chewed him out because a project was late, Bill read his team the riot act. It didn’t matter that the delay was the senior manager’s fault. Bill felt stress and externalized it. The team’s reaction was that Bill, their project, and their lives, were out of control. His behavior created deep insecurity. Renata, for her part, was an insulator. She was honest when problems arose but didn’t dramatize. Once after she’d received a complaint from a big customer, she said nothing to the team until she had investigated what went wrong and outlined a plan. Then she met with her people, explained how the problem had occurred and asked for help avoiding future complaints. The result? The team felt, “Our boss has our back and believes in us.”

Trigger #3: Lack of predictability and consistency.

Bill often made surprise changes to his plan. He saw this as a willingness to be flexible and adapt to circumstances. But his team saw it as poor planning. Bill’s unpredictability triggered stress and cynicism from his team. Renata, on the other hand, understood that shifting goals and erratic decision-making can be disruptive. That’s why she made sure that planning and goal-setting were deeply collaborative on her team. The entire team owned the goals so they were also involved when a shift in strategy was needed. She would never even consider unilaterally changing direction. This gave Renata’s people a keen sense of control over their work.

Security = productivity

In summation, great leaders form a strong bond with their team members by being emotionally available, insulating the team from workplace storms, and showing consistency. This bond, in turn, creates an environment that employees perceive as a safe haven, so they waste no mental energy managing stress or anxiety. And the resulting sense of security and belonging allows people to focus on the work, increasing their engagement and productivity.

What leader could be unhappy with that result?

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Three Triggers of Employee Disengagement.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following academic paper: Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759-775.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get a demo of all our training features

Connect with an expert for a one-on-one demonstration of how Rapid Learning can help develop your team.