Adult attachment theory holds important answers to human vulnerability throughout our lives. Humans inherently seek to maintain safe and secure relationships as a means to survive. Both real and perceived threats activate the attachment system, driving an individual toward a protective figure, like a leader or partner, for support and reassurance.

In the workplace, this mental load sharing helps employees better respond to and cope with threat, allowing them to do their best work. Without the ability to load share with a trusted colleague or leader, an employee is likely to have much lower levels of clarity, creativity, and focus, and be less willing to take risks. Emotion, which plays a significant role in adult attachment, drives humans to make these important connections with one another.

During my recent interview with my wife, Dr. Kathryn Rheem, an expert on adult attachment theory and director of the Washington Baltimore Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, we explored the science behind emotion in the workplace and how managers can understand and work with their employees’ emotions. Below are highlights from part two of our conversation. Last week, we shared some key takeaways from part 1 of our discussion. 

Don: We are hardwired at birth to have safe and secure relationships. When we have them, the limbic system feels safe, allowing the brain to operate at its full capacity. What happens when it doesn’t feel safe when you’re at work?

Dr. Rheem: Not feeling safe at work is going to preoccupy your employees’ brains and their nervous systems because that is a survival issue. The lack of safety means employees have to be on guard because only their eyes and ears are looking out for them. This lack of safety causes their IQ, ability to focus, and attunement to decrease. They lose the ability to understand the needs of their colleagues around them. They’re less likely to participate in what the research refers to as citizenship activities at work.  

What a lot of people don’t know about attachment theory is that it is also a theory of threat management. How do humans feel threat? Our threat-detection system is called fear. We feel afraid when we’re under threat, real or perceived, known or unknown, visible or not. When we feel threat, we feel fear. We typically don’t pay attention to our fear. However, unprocessed fear is what causes reactivity of both extremes. When I say the word reactivity, most people think I mean ranting and raving, throwing my arms up, and yelling at the people on my team.

But, there is another kind of reactivity – the strong, silent type. These leaders get quieter and quieter, and keep more and more to themselves. 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. That lack of emotional signal coming from someone who copes by shutting down is just as potent and costly as the colleague who rants and raves.

Don: For more than 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution began, managers and leaders have been trying to keep emotion out of the workplace. Isn’t it ironic that the science reveals that this inconvenient thing called emotion is actually the key driver of behavior at work? Is it correct to say that there is nothing more important to the determinants of human behavior in the workplace than emotion?

Dr. Rheem: I agree. I would even say there is no more potent phenomenon in any interaction between two or more humans than how each one feels. Managers must learn how to work with their employees’ emotion, make space for it, and validate it – not coddle it or prioritize it at the cost of business and the bottom line – but to actually learn to come alongside their team members and see how the landscape looks for that person who’s in distress. The ultimate way to get out of this inconvenient phenomenon called emotion is to be joined by one another. As humans, we get our equilibrium from relationships.

If you’re a manager who says to an employee, “Come back to the meeting when you’re not crying or when you’ve settled down,” that causes that person to feel worse and makes their emotion ten times stronger because emotion is there to ensure our survival. We evolved in clans, groups, and tribes – people survived in groups. Dr. Jim Coan’s social baseline theory really helps us understand that we share the load of being human better with others.

That’s why, when someone is distressed in the workplace, all the manager needs to say is, “I see your distress and it matters to me.”

Don: Is the part of the brain that processes, generates, and regulates emotion even aware of whether it’s at home or at work? 

Dr. Rheem: No. In fact, cognition is not potent enough to manage emotions. The emotional brain hijacks our cognition, so we might have a rational piece of our brain that’s aware that we’re at work, telling us not to cry or react because we’re in the office. However, the reality is that emotion is just too potent to shut down with that cognitive awareness. That’s why, even when we’re in the workplace, we have emotions – because we’re human and we’re breathing. That’s the good news. But, this is where it can be inconvenient since that emotion happens for humans regardless of location.

Don: I can see how this might feel overwhelming to a manager or leader at any level in an organization. What should managers be aware of to help them better understand employee emotion?

Dr. Rheem: They should stop pathologizing emotion. In our culture, emotion has been extremely pathologized because it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. However, it’s part of being human – it’s not abnormal or unhealthy. Most managers don’t know what to do with emotion until they get some kind of training. A manager should simply acknowledge employee emotion by saying things like: 

“I see you’re in distress. You seem frustrated.”

“Are you overwhelmed?” 

“How are you doing with this project and the pressure of meeting the deadline?” 

Don: Typically managers react with judgment to their employees’ emotions. They say, “You’re out of control. Go cool off.” Managers should avoid rushing to judgment to make meaning out of the situation. Instead, they should rush to curiosity by asking questions to understand why the employee feels the way they do. Tell us a little bit about that role. 

Dr. Rheem:

Curiosity is the underpinning of empathy.

Simply having your manager look at you and say, “Tell me what’s happening. Tell me what you’re aware of,” leaves an employee feeling validated. That simple form of curiosity, asking an open-ended question, is so different than making meaning. Managers make meaning, or judgments, about their team way too quickly, before they have any sense of understanding about what’s happening. They use making meaning as a way to gain control.

It makes sense that your brain would go cognitive and make judgments. When you notice yourself being judgmental or making meaning about an employee, you need to flip it. Tell yourself to be curious for just a moment and ask what’s happening. Acknowledge the distress before you make any more meaning. In that moment of asking an open-ended question or being curious is a moment of contact, or connection, which is what brings attachment theory to life. As a manager, say, “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.” If every manager could do that, we would change workplaces across the United States and beyond.

For more on the science behind engaged work teams, read my book, Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.

 

Key Takeaways:

  • When an employee doesn’t feel safe at work, it’s going to preoccupy their brain and nervous system, causing their IQ, ability to focus, and attunement to decrease.
  • The brain can’t tell whether it’s at work or at home. That’s why, even when we’re in the workplace, we have emotions because we’re human.
  • Managers frequently react to employees’ emotion with judgment. However, when leaders respond with curiosity, it signals to their team members that they care, and it helps to create a more positive and healthy work environment.