Today’s show is about Adult Attachment Theory at Work with Special Guest Dr. Kathryn Rheem. Listen to the show on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:00:01] Attachment theory is amazing science that helps us understand how to be better in all sorts of relationships. Emotion is what drives humans to learn to be present and make connection with another or not. And that’s why you can’t talk about attachment without talking about the important role of emotion, and without teaching managers and leaders to learn how to make space for their team’s humanity, or human emotion. 

Don [00:00:29] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book “Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.” I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement, and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized, and validated. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier, and more productive. Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers, and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And you’re listening to Thrive by Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs, and leaders tips, strategies, and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work. 

Don [00:01:17] Welcome. I’m your host, Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions. Today, I’m delighted to welcome my wife, Dr. Kathryn Rheem, an expert on adult attachment theory, a board member of the International Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, and director of the Washington Baltimore Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, a role she has held for over 10 years. Dr. Rheem is a certified, emotionally focused therapy trainer, supervisor, and therapist and has trained hundreds of mental health clinicians on EFT nationally and internationally. Dr. Rheem is here to talk with us about how adult attachment theory affects the workplace environment and what it means for engagement. And by the way, this is our 50th podcast. And so, I want to welcome Dr. Rheem, Kathryn, and thank you for being here today. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:02:15] Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here. 

Don [00:02:17] Let’s dive right in. For our listeners that are new to the term adult attachment theory, where does this term come from and what does it mean? 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:02:25] The attachment theory was originated by a British doctor after the wars when he noticed that women and children were dying in droves, as he said, as a result of not poor nutrition, not an unclean environment, but actually as a result of loneliness. That just when they thought their loved one was going to come home from war, or the war left children orphaned. They had a caregiver in the orphanage providing care, and providing food and clean clothes. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:02:58] And Dr. Bowlby didn’t understand why these people were still dying. An early death came to be so predictable that when a child was brought into the orphanage, when they did the entry paperwork for the orphanage, they often did the death certificate. It became that predictable. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:03:12] And he didn’t understand why what was happening to this nervous system of a child or even a war widow that made death so predictable.

And what his science revealed is that connection with a loved one is a survival imperative, cradle to grave, regardless of rank, greater status, regardless of your stature in life, regardless of your amazing education and wealth.

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:03:38] You all, we all, need someone to have our back, especially for our moments of distress, especially for the moments when we’re overworked and overwhelmed, perhaps vulnerable for one reason or another. But humans, just because we age and mature chronologically, it doesn’t mean we age out of the need for connection. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:04:00] And because it’s the same operating system called the human nervous system, and we humans only have one for better, for worse. And at home, our attachment needs, fears, and longings come alive regularly. But, in the workplace, it’s my perspective that leaders and managers haven’t known what to do with the humanity that is, of course, embedded in their staff and in their organizations and in their teams. What do we do with our employees’ humanity? Employees at work will have not great moments, and that’s when it’s imperative that leaders learn how to manage emotion and understand emotion, which is why we’re talking about attachment theory today, because emotion is the driver of attachment-oriented behaviors. 

Don [00:04:47] So, we have this underlying science now of adult attachment or attachment theory. And then the work that you do with couples and families is based, again, on this emotionally focused therapy, which is based on adult attachment. So, bridge for us the work of Dr. John Bowlby in discovering attachment theory and into what, I believe, is a practical approach to take the science and then to apply it, if you will, with people and families in couple relationships. What does that bridge look like? 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:05:19] Yeah, it’s a great question. So, the bridge was made more obvious in a 1986 study, I believe. Phil Shaver and Cindy Hazan put an ad in the Rocky Mountain News, a Denver-based newspaper, which extended Bowlby’s attachment theory that, so far to that point, had only been studied between caregivers and children. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:05:39] But Hazan and Shaver’s survey that was in the paper that just the regular person responded to helped us understand that attachment applies in adults, that this is where social psychologists first started getting that we don’t outgrow our needs for attachment. And that’s simply because you’re human. You have attachment needs, and our culture is still understanding the ramifications of what it means to be a thriving human, both at home, of course, which is where my practice of emotionally focused therapy is mostly applied in terms of relationships that are distressed, and then, of course, as we all at E3 are the experts in, in the workplace. 

Don [00:06:20] So, the role of EFT, though, specifically, it’s based on adult attachment or attachment theory. But, what is EFT, what is ICEFT, this international center? Tell me a little bit more about how you as a mental health clinician have been able to take attachment theory and apply it. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:06:41] EFT, emotionally focused therapy, was founded by Dr. Sue Johnson. And Sue is the originator of this empirically validated process, the most effective form of couples therapy that’s now been extended into family therapy and individual therapy. So, Dr. Johnson took Bowlby’s theory and built a process by watching her couples and families in distress and then analyzing these distressed relationships through the lens of attachment theory. Does attachment apply in peer relationships? Does attachment apply with adults? And very clearly and emphatically, yes, it does. And so, also in the mid ’80s, when social psychologists were wondering about the extension of attachment theory into adult romantic relationships, here was Sue working with distressed couples, distressed romantic relationships, and was using attachment theory as a foundation of her systemic therapy to help people understand their distress and then help them have an experience of working with their distress in a different way that leads to a better connection with the one who matters most. 

Don [00:07:53] So, your role here. So you’re a close colleague of Sue. She’s been a mentor and a guide for you. And you’re actually a trainer in EFT, and you do this all over the world. So, someone might say, “Hey, this is great. This is an important development for couples and families. And that’s all wonderful. But, hey, we’re talking about work now. This is the workplace. We need to leave that emotional baggage and issues at home. That needs to be resolved there. Work is work. And when we get there, we need to understand our role as workers and to get the job done. What’s wrong with that perspective? 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:08:26] Yeah, I’m smiling because if only it could be that way, that would make the workplace a lot more efficient. It’s quite inconvenient to be working with humans who have feelings, right? Whether you’re in the office or in the frozen food aisle, emotion is inconvenient, but emotion is what drives behavior. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:08:43] And why do emotions come out strong? Why do we humans have emotion to protest from an attachment perspective? We use our emotions to protest when our attachment needs haven’t been met. And at home, it’s obviously a very direct line to your unmet attachment needs and your love relationships. In the workplace, the line is less direct, but it’s still there and it’s still really important. We’re not asking managers to meet their employees’ attachment needs, but we are asking managers to pay attention to the environmental factors that help an employee’s brain thrive. And those are the same environmental factors, those are the precursors, that we all need much more of at home. But, in the workplace where humans spend the majority of their time, we need leaders and managers to know how to pay attention to human emotion. 

Don [00:09:39] The part of the brain that processes emotion, that generates and regulates emotion, is it even aware or is it cognizant of whether it’s at home or at work? 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:09:49] No. In fact, cognition is not potent enough to manage emotion. The emotional brain hijacks our cognition. So, we might have a piece of our brain that’s aware we’re at work. Don’t cry, we’re at work. Don’t react, don’t yell, we’re at work. I’m in the office. I’m with my colleagues. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:10:05] But, the reality is emotion is just too potent to shut down with that cognitive awareness. And so, even when we’re at work, we’re in a conference room, we’re in the boardroom, we’re in a meeting with our colleague, we have emotion because we’re human and we’re breathing. That’s the good news. We’re alive. But, this is where it can be inconvenient. Yeah, that emotion happens for humans regardless of location. 

Don [00:10:32] There’s a certain irony here, and that I believe in what I’ve seen and experienced is that managers, leaders have been trying to keep emotion out of the workplace for decades. I mean, for over 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution began, we didn’t want that in the workplace. And isn’t it ironic that science now signals to us, hey, this thing, this inconvenient thing called emotion actually is the key driver of behavior at work? 

Don [00:10:54] And so, this is the whole basis of E3 Solutions, and what we do is to take this science into the workplace and to say, hey, we need to understand this, because whether or not an employee is engaged is highly dependent on the quality, the safety of the relationships that they’re involved in. And that’s why we developed this 28-question online survey based around each manager’s cohort, each manager’s team, to understand how healthy that is. I mean, I would make the bold statement: There is nothing more important to the determinants of human behavior in the workplace than emotion. Am I overstepping? 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:11:33] No. In fact, I would say, as you said, there’s nothing more important.

I would say there’s no more potent phenomenon in any human interaction, any interaction between two or more humans than how each one feels. And when managers can learn how to work with employees’ emotion and how to make space for it and how to validate it, not coddle it, not prioritize emotion at the cost of business and the bottom line, but to actually learn to come alongside their employees, to come alongside their team members and learn how the landscape looks from that person who’s in distress, come alongside and join.

Because the ultimate way to get out of this inconvenient phenomenon called emotion is to be joined by another. We get our equilibrium, we humans get our equilibrium through and from relationships.

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:12:28] And so, if you’re a manager that says, “Come back and talk to me when you’re not crying” or “When you’ve settled down, you can come back to the meeting.” Actually, that’s making that person feel worse and making their emotion have to come on 10 times stronger because emotion is there to ensure our survival, and survival, as we well know, we were evolved in clans and groups and tribes. Survival is in groups. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:12:54] And Jim Coan, Dr. Jim Coan, at University of Virginia, his social baseline theory really helps us understand that we share the load of being human better with another. And so, in the workplace, when someone is distressed, all the manager needs to do is say, “I see your distress and it matters to me.” And often that’s enough. 

Don [00:13:19] We love the work of Dr. Coan at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and his social baseline theory. And one of the things that we help managers understand in our workshops is this whole notion of load sharing that, not only do we feel safer when we have high-quality relationships, but the work that we do actually feels less burdensome. We can get more done with less metabolic load if we can do so with what, in your world, would be called “safe and secure others.” And in the workplace, the language we have to use is “trusted colleagues.” 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:13:52] Yeah, and this is the confluence of social baseline theory and attachment theory in that Jim, Dr. Coan’s amazing science has helped, validated attachment theory as a real phenomenon because of his FMRI studies and the role of, when you put a person under a condition of threat, i.e., being shocked on your ankle when you’re in an MRI machine. 

Don [00:14:11] A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Machine. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:14:14] And if you’ve never been in one, they’re tight circular tubes where you have to stay still. The magnets in them are circling you and rolling around and loud, clunking, uncomfortable. 

Don [00:14:29] So, the essence of this is that we are hardwired at birth to have safe and secure relationships. And when we have them, the brain, the limbic system in the brain, while we’re processing all of this emotion, feels safe. And when it feels safe, it allows the brain to operate at its full capacity. Tell me a little bit about what happens when it isn’t safe. I mean, we say, “Hey, look, we’re adults just, you know, gird yourself up and go in there.” What is the problem with not feeling safe at work? It is work after all. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:14:59] Not feeling safe at work is going to preoccupy your employees’ brains and their nervous system, to their credit, as is their right, is going to be preoccupied with the lack of safety because that is a survival issue, whether you think it should be or not. And the lack of safety means, I have to be on guard because only my eyes and my ears, which we all know inherently isn’t enough, are looking out for me. And so, I am on guard, and I’m a bit rigid, and I can even be a bit vigilant. And as long as I feel alone and by myself, that vigilance is required to ensure my survival. But, what does that mean in the workplace? I’m flinchy. I jump unnecessarily. I’m going to have more quick reactions. My reactions are going to be skewed more negatively. 

Don [00:15:46] Literally, we now know their IQ drops. They lose their ability to focus. There attunement drops. That is, even their ability to understand the needs of the colleagues around them goes down. They’re less likely to participate in what the research refers to as citizenship activities at work. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:16:02] Yeah, it’s hard to listen. It’s hard to be open and listen when you’re preoccupied with your lack of security. What a lot of people don’t know about attachment theory is attachment theory is also a theory of threat management. And how do humans feel threat? Well, our threat-detection system is called fear. We humans get afraid when we’re under threat, real or perceived, known or unknown, visible or not. When we feel a threat, we feel fear. And humans, a lot of us don’t pay attention to our fear. But, unprocessed fear is what causes reactivity of both extremes. Most people, when I say the word reactivity, they think I’m ranting and raving and, you know, throwing paper and throwing my arms up and barking at the people who, you know, are on my team. There is another kind of reactivity, which is the strong silent type, and they get quieter and quieter and more and more to themselves. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:17:00] They’re harder to connect with. You don’t know if they’re being aloof because they’re uncomfortable or if they think they’re superior. And so, that lack of emotional signal coming from someone who copes by shutting down is just as potent and just as costly as the colleague who rants and raves and barks and even might bite, you know, figuratively bite. 

Don [00:17:22] So, you can understand how this might feel overwhelming to a manager or a leader at any level in the organization. This is like uncharted territory. And this, of course, is why I wrote the book “Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.” 

Don [00:17:36] And I have to say here, I don’t think the acknowledgements I gave Kathryn, Dr. Rheem, for helping in the execution of that book was just unbelievable. But, we’re trying to take this science and apply it in the workplace. And, of course, so do our workshops and our other resources for managers. But, as a clinician stepping outside of the therapy room for couples and families, but now stepping into the office of the manager who’s got, let’s say 10 direct reports, and they seem to be going at all different kinds of directions and their emotions seems to be dysregulated. Is it fair to ask you what are three things that a manager should be aware of, not necessarily doing, but thinking about, processing, different approaches?

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:18:17] Please stop pathologizing emotion. Emotion is, in our culture, has been extremely pathologized because it is inconvenient and that’s at its best. 

Don [00:18:28] And uncomfortable. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:18:28] And uncomfortable. Of course it’s uncomfortable. And until you get some kind of training, most of us don’t know what to do with it. And so, if a manager could simply acknowledge it. “I see you’re in distress. I hear you’re in distress. You seem frustrated. Are you overwhelmed? How are you doing with this project, with this task, with this team member, with this deadline, with this pressure?” 

Don [00:18:54] And you know, what we do for managers along this line is typically managers rush in with judgment. “You’re out of control. You’re, you know, go cool off.” Instead of rushing to judgment, we want them to rush to curiosity. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:19:04] Absolutely. 

Don [00:19:04] Ask questions, understand why. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:19:07] Yeah. 

Don [00:19:07] But, I think you would also probably add empathize and validate. Tell us a little bit about that role. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:19:12] Yeah. I mean, I would love to add empathy, but empathy is hard to do when you’re frustrated yourself. So, I want to be fair to everybody in this scenario, hypothetical scenario here, but is all so common, curiosity is great, curiosity is the underpinning of empathy. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:19:26] And just having your manager look at you and say, “Tell me what’s happening. Tell me what you’re aware of.” That simple form of curiosity, asking an open-ended question is so different than making meaning. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:19:39] Humans make meaning really quickly. And in fact, I would guess that managers make meaning, i.e., judgments, about their team way too quickly before they have any sense of understanding about what’s happening. And making meaning is a way to get control and predictability. And of course, emotion, dysregulated emotion, a distressed human, you know, there is nothing more uncomfortable or leaving us feeling out of control or unpredictable. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:20:08] And so, it makes sense that your brain would go cognitive, make judgments, make meaning. And when you notice yourself being judgmental or making meaning about somebody else, that’s when you need to flip it. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:20:20] This is what you ask yourself to do: “Let me be curious for just a moment. Let me ask what’s happening. Let me acknowledge distress before I make any more meaning.”

Because in that moment of asking an open-ended question or being curious is a moment of contact, is a moment of connection, which in that very moment, is what brings attachment theory to life. I see your distress. Your distress matters to me. I don’t know what to do about it, but I’m willing to sit beside you and that’s it. If every manager could do that, we would change workplaces across America and who knows where else.

Don [00:20:57] Yeah, I can tell we need to ask you to come back, Dr. Rheem, because there’s just so much content here, and this is so germane and central to what we’re trying to do at E3 Solutions. 

Don [00:21:07] So, Kathryn talked to us today about attachment theory – that we are all hardwired at birth to have safe and secure attachments, that this roll of attachment and a felt sense of safety is predominant for the brain and takes precedence in the brain, and that it is appropriate to take this science and apply it into the workplace, and that managers can learn some important lessons, especially the ones that she just referred to. 

Don [00:21:33] I want to thank you, Dr. Rheem, for being here with us today. Will you come back and do another session? 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:21:39] Happily. 

[00:21:39] OK. I appreciate that very much. Any last words from you, Dr. Rheem, before we close today’s session?

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:21:45] Attachment theory is amazing science that helps us understand how to be better in all sorts of relationships. Emotion is what drives humans to learn to be present and make connection with another or not. And that’s why you can’t talk about attachment without talking about the important role of emotion, and without teaching managers and leaders to learn how to make space for their team’s humanity, or human emotion. 

Don [00:22:15] Thank you, Dr. Rheem. Thank you for being with us. 

Dr. Kathryn Rheem [00:22:17] Thank you. Thank you for having me. Great to be here. 

Don [00:22:19] That’s it for today. I’m your host, Don Rheem. And thank you for listening. Today’s episode concludes our special guest series, and we want to thank our listeners for joining us over the last several weeks as we spoke to subject matter experts one on one about critical workplace challenges. 

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