Adult attachment theory is a fascinating science that helps us understand how to have stronger relationships in both our personal and professional lives. Our human nervous system is wired for connection with others, and when we don’t get that connection, the body and heart suffers. Without safe and secure relationships, we become “emotionally isolated.” Being disconnected from others takes a toll. 

You can’t discuss adult attachment without talking about the important role of emotion, or without teaching leaders how to make space for their team’s humanity or human emotion. Emotion drives people to learn to be present and make connections with one another.

I recently interviewed my wife, the brilliant Dr. Kathryn Rheem, an expert on adult attachment theory, to gain insight into this behavioral science. She is a board member of the International Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and director of the Washington Baltimore Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy. During our conversation, Dr. Rheem discussed the origins of adult attachment theory, how it affects the workplace, and what it means for employee engagement.

Dr. Rheem: Attachment theory was originally developed by Dr. John Bowlby during World War II when he noticed that many children were dying – not as a result of poor nutrition or an unclean environment – but as a result of loneliness. These young people believed their loved one was going to come home after the war, but instead it left them orphaned. Children had staff members in the orphanage taking care of them and providing them with food and clean clothes, so Dr. Bowlby didn’t understand why they were still dying. Sadly, an early death came to be so predictable, that when a child was brought into an orphanage, they often wrote the death certificate along with the entry paperwork.

Dr. Bowlby worked to understand what was happening to the nervous system of a child that made death so predictable. His science revealed that connection with a loved one is a survival imperative from cradle to grave, regardless of your stature in life, education, or wealth. We all need someone to have our back, especially for our moments of distress and when we’re overworked, overwhelmed, or vulnerable. Just because humans age and mature chronologically, it doesn’t mean we age out of the need for connection.

At home, our attachment needs, fears, and longings come alive regularly. But in the workplace, leaders and managers haven’t known what to do with the humanity embedded in their staff, organizations, and teams. Employees at work will have moments that aren’t great. That’s when it’s imperative that leaders learn how to understand and manage emotions, which is the driver of attachment-oriented behaviors. 

Don: How does the work of Dr. Bowlby in discovering attachment theory, which was initially only studied between caregivers and children, apply to adults?

Dr. Rheem: The bridge in this theory was made more obvious in a 1986 study conducted by Dr. Philip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan. They put a survey in the Rocky Mountain News, a Denver-based newspaper, for people to respond to. The survey responses helped doctors understand that attachment applies to adults as well. We don’t outgrow our need for attachment. This ever-present need exists simply because we’re human. Our culture is still understanding the ramifications of what it means to be a thriving human, both at home and in the workplace.

Don: Let’s talk about how adult attachment theory applies to the workplace. Some leaders may say, “This is work, and we need to leave that emotional baggage at home and get the job done.” What’s wrong with that perspective? 

Dr. Rheem: It’s quite inconvenient to be working with humans who have a multitude of feelings no matter where you are. Emotion is inconvenient, but emotion is what drives behavior. Why do emotions come out so strong in humans? We use our emotions to protest when our attachment needs haven’t been met. At home, it’s a very direct line to your unmet attachment needs and your love relationships.

On the other hand, 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 their employees’ brains thrive. People spend the majority of their time at work, so it’s critical for leaders to know how to pay attention to human emotion. 

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Key Takeaways:

  • Our human nervous system is wired for connection with other people, and when we don’t have that connection, our body and heart suffers. Without safe and secure relationships, we become “emotionally isolated.”
  • Attachment theory was originally developed by Dr. John Bowlby during World War II when he noticed that many children were dying as a result of loneliness. A study conducted by Dr. Philip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan discovered that attachment theory applies not only to children but to adults as well.
  • People spend the majority of their time at work, so it’s critical for leaders to know how to pay attention to their employees’ emotions and learn how to work with them.