Last week I explained how social baseline theory (SBT) plays out in the workplace. SBT suggests that we require safe and secure relationships with other people on our team in order to truly thrive in the workplace.

This week I’m going deeper into relationship science and showing how adult attachment theory affects the workplace environment and what it means for engagement.

Dr. John Bowlby’s attachment studies

Dr. John Bowlby’s studies on attachment, dating back to World War II, have shown us the debilitating effects of isolation. Bowlby was a British doctor who aided British soldiers during World War II suffering from what was then called “shell shock.” Today, we know the condition as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At the same time that Bowlby was doing his work, caregivers in other parts of Great Britain were taking care of war orphans. These solitary children, each the only survivor of their family, were being cared for in orphanages. Sadly, many of the children in these homes were dying, and the doctors couldn’t stop their deaths because they had no idea what was causing them. These homes were clean and warm, and regular, nutritious meals were served. On paper, these orphans should not be dying.

World War II discovery on attachment

When the doctors in these homes came across Bowlby’s work, they realized the symptoms he was describing in shell-shocked soldiers were similar to those the orphaned children suffered from. Bowlby was sought out for his expertise to help prevent more children from dying.He gathered data from the orphanages, analyzed it, and made a discovery: these children were dying because their safe and secure attachments had been severed. Their parents were gone. He determined that if we are left alone to deal with hardship, we won’t cope well – even to the point of impacting our survival.

His conclusion, decades before neuroscientists would corroborate it, was that our human nervous system is wired for connection with one another and when we don’t get connection, especially in a moment of need, the body and heart suffers. We become distressed, we hurt, and, as his research highlights, some of us die.

Results of social isolation

The science behind adult attachment clearly establishes that without safe and secure relationships we become “emotionally isolated.” Being disconnected from others (professionally or personally) takes a toll.

Emotional isolation is devastating to the human nervous system. As Bowlby discovered, isolation is inherently traumatizing. The percentage of Americans who say they are isolated has doubled since the 1980s from 20 to 40 percent. Emotional isolation affects our health, our sleep patterns, and most importantly as Bowlby discovered decades ago, emotional isolation can be deadly.

Impact of attachment theory in the workplace

Attachment theory holds critical answers to human vulnerability throughout our lives. Whether at home or at the office, seeking and maintaining contact with a secure relationship “is viewed as the primary motivating principle in human beings and an innate survival mechanism,” according to John Bowlby’s research in his book A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development.

Threats – real or perceived – activate the attachment system, which drives one toward a protective figure such as a boss, leader, or parent. Seeking reassurance, clarity, direction, and protection, safe attachments help individuals cope with threats and maintain focus. Once a threat is mitigated, the individual can return to the task at hand. If the threat isn’t mitigated, the individual remains preoccupied; loses focus, clarity, and creativity; and stops taking appropriate risks (thus showing less initiative).

Why does attachment matter to leaders?

While Bowlby’s original work was primarily around children and their caregivers, more recently this work has been extended into the role of adult attachment in the workplace. Work is the new tribe. It’s the place where most adults spend the majority of their waking hours. The attachments adults innately seek, those safe and secure connections, are frequently made with the other adults they interact with at work.

Research on adult attachment in the workplace indicates that employees will use their relationship with a group as a safe haven (a source of support and comfort) and as a secure foundation for growth and exploration. When leaders create an environment that fosters group cohesiveness, each employee’s potential to learn, grow, and thrive increases.

Key Takeaways

  • Attachment theory indicates our nervous systems are wired for connection to one another. When those connections are severed, we can feel emotionally isolated and our brains suffer.
  • It is vital that leaders create alignment between the conditions the brain seeks every day (reliable social sources) and the daily experience of employees. Doing so allows employees to function closer to their full capacity.
  • Leaders who focus on a relational culture where employees connect with core values, organizational leaders, mission and vision, and each other will benefit from a more sustainable and healthy work environment. As the quality of connections increases in the work culture, so do the levels of engagement.