Today’s podcast episode is all about Adult Attachment Theory in the workplace. Listen to the show on iTunes and Stitcher.

Don: [00:00:00] I’m Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions, and author of the book Thrive by Design. I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement at work. I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level to create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized, and validated. Employees who feel safe at work are happier, healthier, and more productive. Each week my team and I take on topics impacting managers and offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. This is the Thrive by Design podcast.

Kelly: [00:00:39] Welcome to the Thrive by Design podcast. I’m Kelly Burns and I’m here with Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions. We created this show to give managers, CEOs, and leaders the tips, strategies, and tools you need to create an engaged culture at work. Last week we discussed the role of social baseline theory at work and today we’re discussing a related topic -adult attachment theory.

Don: [00:01:06] Kelly, how are you?

Kelly: [00:01:07] Good morning, Don! Talk to me about adult attachment theory. I know it’s a longstanding theory. I think it takes us all the way back to World War II. Can you give us a brief rundown history of adult attachment.

Don: [00:01:20] This was the work of a pioneering psychiatrist M.D. by the name of Dr. John Bowlby in Great Britain, who was working with British soldiers suffering from what was then called shell shock. Today we referred to it as PTSD. He was working with these soldiers and describing their symptoms and at the same time across Great Britain, something else was going on. As it is folks might know, in World War II, especially in Great Britain, there was significant damage from aerial bombardment. Bombs were not very accurate in World War II. As a part of the result the collateral damage on human beings, on families, was just enormous.

Don: [00:02:03] Great Britain found themselves with hundreds and hundreds of war orphans and war widows. They were put together in homes, what we might consider an orphanage, and cared. They received medical attention, food. They were well cared for, but a tragedy started to unfold in this population including the war orphans and the war widows – they started dying in unusual numbers. The medical doctors caring for them couldn’t stop the death rate, primarily because they didn’t know why they were dying. They saw symptoms in these children and this was babies, toddlers, tweens, and teens – the aged this really didn’t matter, but they would describe these symptoms and they saw the same symptoms in these children that Bowlby saw in these soldiers. They asked Bobby to come over and look at this population of children to help them understand what was happening. And Bowlby made a discovery, something that’s been true about Homo sapiens from the beginning, but no one had ever really had this kind of a demographic of just the quintessentially emotionally isolated children.

Don: [00:03:14] He discovered that we are hardwired to have safe and secure connections with other human beings, especially between a child and a parent. If that relationship is vibrant, robust, and strong, the child tends to be vibrant robust and strong. But what he was working with was children that all of a sudden one day, their most important safe and secure attachment figures – their parents – were gone. So they were what is referred to now as emotionally isolated. Now there’s a standardized test for that. When we’re emotionally isolated human beings don’t perform well, in fact they underperform. And in fact can become quite ill and actually die.

Kelly: [00:03:56] The discovery that Dr. Bowlby made was that these orphans were literally dying because they had lost their parents. They were dying because they were alone.

Don: [00:04:09] We are hardwired at birth to have these safe and secure connections with others that’s what Bowlby was able to prove. That’s what attachment theory is about. What we focus on an attachment theory is really a subset referred to as adult attachment.

Don: [00:04:25] We do not lose these attachment needs as we grow older. It’s not just children that need these reliable social resources, other people in their lives that they can count, on that have their back, that are there for them especially in moments of need. Adults need this as well. Bowlby was able to identify it across all the age groups, because he was also working with with war widows.

Don: [00:04:50] What do we know about emotional isolation? If you are emotionally isolated you’re twice as likely to catch a cold. You might say “no big deal.” If you a heart attack or stroke you’re twice as likely to have another one. When you look at the research around octogenarians – people that live to be over 100 years old – and you say what are the characteristics of these people? One of the key characteristics is they have a very strong social network. They have people around them that care for them, that they think about. There’s also other research around the concentration camps in Germany in World War II. Who is the most likely person to survive? It wasn’t always the person who arrived that was in the best physical shape.

Don: [00:05:32] The person that turns out that was the most likely to survive in many cases was the person that had someone they were living for, waiting for, thinking about. They were well-connected and didn’t lose that connection. We just see this across the board.

Don: [00:05:46] Most importantly, and the most devastating part of this, and this is what Bowlby saw in these orphans in World War II, but we have only been able to detect medically more recentlyv is that it can kill you. It can cause the heart to stop. Not too long ago in the New England Journal of Medicine, the medical community finally did pinpoint this issue that in cases of severe economic distress, there is a muscle that controls heart function that can stop working. This is very, very powerful for us, this need for connection. Without connection, we just don’t do as well.

Kelly: [00:06:27] But it’s not just about connection, it sounds like, because if Dr. Bowlby is going to look at these orphans and try and figure out what’s going on -those orphans are surrounded by medical professionals, by other orphans. They are in some sense of relationship or at least surrounded by other human beings. So it can’t just be about connection that helps survival. And maybe it’s a difference between the quantity of the people that they’re around versus the quality of the people that they’re around. What is it? What’s the distinction there that really drives attachment?

Don: [00:07:03] Well maybe this is an oversimplification, but there’s an enormous difference between contact with others and connection. That is, an emotionally felt connection with someone where you feel like they have your back.

Don: [00:07:20] We are hardwired to be in a group and we’ve talked about that before and the fact that we’re tribal animals. But actually walking into a group of strangers is metabolically exhausting and the limbic system will typically code that is threat in large part because we don’t know what’s going to happen next with these people. We don’t know if they know us. They certainly don’t value us because they don’t know us. So to feel a stranger is not reassuring. It’s actually typically coded as threat by the brain. The proximity of human beings can help. It’s certainly better to be at least with one person than to be alone. But it’s – the phrasing you used – it’s the quality of that connection, the depth of that connection.

[00:08:03] For children it’s the most pronounced. Their safe and secure attachment figures are their parents. They completely depend on them. In a child’s brain, although the limbic system is functioning fully well, the prefrontal cortex isn’t. In many ways, children proxy that thinking part of their brain to their safe and secure attachment figures. You tell me what’s right and wrong. Help me understand what I can and I can’t do. They need the adult brain, the more mature prefrontal cortex, to help them make sense of the world. But when that connection is lost and they feel isolated and alone, that’s devastating.

Kelly: [00:08:44] Dr. Bowlby is essentially the founder of attachment theory. As you’ve mentioned, we focus more on the concept of adult attachment. How is that theory progressed from Dr. Bowlby’s time into an adult attachment as we see it today.

Don: [00:08:59] There are there are some academics who have taken attachment theory and not just looked at it from the standpoint of child and parent, but are looking at it from parent to parent – that is in a couple and partners. But also there’s a really interesting research, and this is what we caught early on, around adult attachment and the workplace.

[00:09:20] This has been done by two pioneering researchers, Phil Shaver formerly of the University of California at Davis and Michael [00:09:29] McHale [0.3] , who is an academic in Israel. Both of them have partnered and done individual work around adult attachment in the workplace and that’s something that we’ve been very fascinated by and pay a lot of attention to. Again I use this metaphor of concentric circles or ripples in a pond. Yes, we’re hardwired to have a safe and secure connections at an intimate level with a partner, parents, a family network. But the brain doesn’t lose that need for connection when it leaves the confines of what would be a genetic family, if you will.

Don: [00:10:05] We want to be connected and have safe and secure connections wherever we go. What did Shaver and [00:10:12] Michaele [0.3] answer find? Where are adults attaching in the workplace? They found four areas where they found adult employees attaching at work. I’m going to list the four but it’s not an order of priority.

Don: [00:10:25] One was fit with the job. Are they a good fit for the actual work they do? If you’re an extrovert, if you’re in a job where you’re working alone, it’s probably not going to feel like a good fit. Perhaps we don’t want people that are highly creative and have a very low sense of objective judgment working in accounting or engineering where the reliance on physical principles is is absolutely crucial.

Don: [00:10:56] They also attach with the team. That makes a lot of sense to us that they connect with the people they work with. We see this in our survey all the time, where employees will speak very highly of their team but less highly about other groups or other teams. They connect with the people they’re with everyday.

Don: [00:11:16] They also connect with the person they report to, their leader. It could be the supervisor that they report to, it may be the manager above that supervisor. It could be the CEO of the organization. But it makes perfect sense that for Homo sapiens, hardwired to be in a group or tribe, you want to have a strong leader. You want to have someone that you can essentially load share some of these key big questions about “what direction are we going?” And “how fast should we go?” “What products should we make or services should we explore?” To to load share that heavy metabolic load to a leader, and if you have confidence in the leader you feel safer in your tribe.

Don: [00:11:56] The fourth area is they can connect with the mission and vision of the organization. We see this significantly when we do surveys and nonprofits or in healthcare organizations. There will be nurses for example that will complain about what they’re paid and they’re not treated very well and you “say gosh why are they going here every day?” And then you get into that question about why do you come to work every day? And they say because “I love helping patients. I love our healing mission. I love helping people be healthier.” So those would be four very valuable areas for any leader to focus on. Fit with a job, fit with a team, fit with the leader, fit with the mission and vision. One question alone a leader could ask is “do my employees know what the vision is?” Is that even available to people within grasp.

Kelly: [00:12:50] I want to dig into each of those four areas because they are each individually really core to driving engagement. None of them can stand in isolation of the other four it to have a truly engaged employee. But first before we dig into each of us for I want to drill down on the concept of connection. You’ve said connection with the team, connection with a job, connection with a manager. What is the difference in connection and simply liking? I like my manager. I like my job. I think there’s a different level there that challenges engagement and I’m curious what that level looks like. What does connection truly mean?

Don: [00:13:30] When we think “oh, I really like my manager.” You want to find out where does that come from? It’s an attitude. I like my manager. An attitude is the outcome of a package of experiences. What is my experience with this individual? The brain is processing those experiences and essentially coding them. Are these experiences positive? Predictable? Consistent? Respectful? Validating? Am I seeing a consistent picture across the experiences? The brain is processing, and by the way this isn’t something that’s going on cognitively. I mean it might be, it could rise into our cognitive thinking about “Wow, I really wish my manager was more consistent.” Or “Wow, my leader or manager is fairly consistent across across a broad range.” That’s great, but it’s also happening at a subconscious level where the limbic system is making assessments about is this person reliable? Can I count on this person to do that again and again and again? Can I predict what my leader will do if I do this or this happens? How will I be treated by my leader?

Don: [00:14:39] Liking is an outcome, where essentially the limbic system is saying “I like reporting to Bob, my supervisor.” It’s essentially my limbic system saying Bob is reliable, consistent, predictable, and that’s that feels good to me. And to take it a step further, although I don’t necessarily like this research – the leader that is predictably grumpy, that is their world is kind of overcast and their glass is half empty. There’s research that shows that employees will actually preference someone who’s consistently grumpy over a manager or leader who is inconsistently positive. This comes back to what is the brain favoring? What appears to be one of the most important conditions for the brain, it is this issue of predictability. And yes maybe my manager is grumpy, but at least I know every time I interact with that person, my brain knows what to expect and that is highly valued.

Don: [00:15:46] Now I want to be pretty clear to our podcast listeners – I’m not advocating being a consistently grumpy manager. I want you to be consistently positive but it does help us understand what does this thing “like” come from. It’s an attitude that’s the result of a series of experiences.

Kelly: [00:16:06] The connection piece, I like the distinction that you make. Liking is an attitude and an attitude is not predictable for behavior over time. Connection on the other hand, that drives engagement, is more of a behavior that is predictable and drives engagement over time. So if we think about connection and how it drives engagement, let’s come back to attachment theory. You’re saying that in a workplace environment, an employee can attach to four different things. So let’s drill down on what those four are. The first one is that they can attach to the role that they’re in.

Don: [00:16:41] I’m an electrician and I love being an electrician. I’m a mechanic and I love that. They identify with their job and they’re proud of it. I’m a programmer. I’m a I’m a coder. I’m a marketing specialist. I’m a I’m a consultant. I’m a salesperson and a great one. Just go through LinkedIn and hear people talk about how proud they are of what they do. That a connection with their job. You have doctors that like being seen as a doctor. They’ll even wear their scrubs on the airplane. They want everybody know that they’re a doctor. Part of what’s happening is they’re finding meaning and purpose in their life based on what they do.

Kelly: [00:17:30] And this connection to the job specifically is so important because while I may feel extraordinarily connected to the mission and vision of the organization or the leader that’s above me, if I don’t feel like I’m able to use my strengths fully in the role that I’m in, then everyday I show up feels harder because I can’t commit to the kind of work that helps me thrive and helps the organization grow because I’m operating outside of my strengths. This reminds me a little bit of that the Good to Great book where they talk about the right seat on the right bus. That you’re in the right role for your strengths and your skill sets. But this brings it to the science-based level, where it’s the right role and attaching to your job specifically, is about attachment, is about the neurological and social need to connect with the work that you’re doing.

Don: [00:18:23] Yes and there’s an interesting sort of cousin to this issue, and it’s one of the questions we ask in our survey. The question we ask in our employee engagement survey is “Am I able to use my strengths daily at work?” This is also about fit with a job – employees want to go to work and if they have a strength they would like to be using it in the work they do. That’s a part of the fit. It’s not just like a personality fit, but is “Do I see what I do well, is that being tapped recognized and used by the organization?” When we have fit around strengths, engagement goes way up.

Kelly: [00:19:03] This feels really important, because if you think about the concept of “work as the new tribe,” the fact that we evolved in tribes and clans where we each had a role to play to be a valuable and contributing member of the tribe, if we’re operating in a role that is outside of our strengths or is outside of our true fit, then we may not feel as secure in that tribe because we’re not able to contribute in the ways that we know that we’re able to.

Don: [00:19:29] Think think of the person in the tribe that was excellent as a hunter. That was excellent at catching game or could go out and find the the edible roots and the berries. Or the person that knew how to skin a hide and make moccasins out of it. They have this skill that’s honored by the tribe, and for the brain it’s like, “They’re not going to kick me out. No one else can do what I do. This is a really valuable talent or skill. I’m okay. I’m safe. I’m in right.” Let’s just extrapolate that out into today. What do people think they do really well, that they excel at. Are they able to do that at work? And when they do, they feel like “okay, this is my skill. They know it’s my skill and they value it.”

Kelly: [00:20:14] How can a leader facilitate that for their team members? If there is an employee or multiple employees who don’t feel like they are operating inside of their strengths. They’re answering poorly to the question “I’m fully able to use my strengths at work.” What does a leader do to help facilitate that kind of growth in connecting with their role.?

Don: [00:20:33] Well you can do it anecdotally. Managers can do this simply by having regular feedback conversations with their employees and asking them how are you doing? How does it feel? What else would you like to be doing? It’s a conversation and it’s a regular relational conversation. You can also do it in a more prescriptive or scientific way and you can test for skills. You can do skills based testing and find out what is this team really good at. I remember in doing work at a manufacturing company up in New England. They would have as a regular part of their feedback process, they would ask aspirational questions of their employees. They would say “what would you like to be doing in four or five years?” An employee in this manufacturing environment might say, “I’d like numbers. I think I like accounting. In the old qorld the manager would say, “Accounting? You’re on the assembly line. Snap out of it, get real.” In this organization, they say, “Really, you think you’d be good with numbers? Would you consider taking a class at the local community college and if you maintain a B or above we’ll pay for it? Why don’t you take an accounting class and see what happens.”.

Don: [00:21:44] Come alongside that person’s aspirations and not make them feel like it’s separate or distinct from the work. And then, as one manager said, “That sounds nutty to me. What if they decide they want to be an accountant and now you’ve lost them from from the assembly line?” I’m thinking great! I want to hire them. What could be better than an accountant in our company that’s been on the line! That understands the company and gets it better. Let’s come alongside, let’s find out. It may not be the position they’re in now, but in a world where our retention strategy is equally important to our hiring strategy, if this helps me keep that employee for an extra 3, 4, 5, 10, 20 years, I want to be all over that.

Kelly: [00:22:25] And not just keep them in their role, but keep them engaged because they’re moving into roles that really help them thrive where they are, which can only benefit your bottom line.

Don: [00:22:34] I love that phrase “thrive where they are.” That’s great.

Kelly: [00:22:38] This sounds like it also requires a lot of flexibility and willingness on a leader’s part to have these conversations and to make shifts as needed. A rigid structure where your job description is gold and that is the only way an employee is allowed to operate is not going to serve us in the changing economy that we’re in. Employers and leaders have to know that this kind of flexibility is what’s truly going to set great organizations apart to keep engaged and thriving employees over time.

Don: [00:23:08] One other way that we’ve found organizations are dealing with this: There is a pressure on all people, especially as it turns out Millennials and Gen Z, about moving up in the organization. It’s not always possible, there aren’t as many seats. You go up in organizations, it is shaped like a pyramid. There’s just fewer options up. Do cross training. Help people learn parallel tasks to them. They might find that they like that task more than what they’re doing. It helps to have redundancy, so if someone’s out for pregnancy or health reasons or just on vacation – to have a more versatile staff that can step into other roles.

Don: [00:23:49] There there are some jobs and organizations we think for example and support functions: accounting, finance, marketing, where their view really never changes. So how do we create a sense of variety and flexibility in their schedule? Cross training is one of the ways to do that.

Kelly: [00:24:08] One of the best ways that leaders can have these conversations is to pay close attention in those monthly feedback meetings to asking the question “How can I help you grow? What other areas might you be interested in tapping into? Are there are there work functions, teams, that you’d like to help lead on this project or that project?” It doesn’t mean that you have to promote them to new roles thinking outside the box of a direct promotion up as the only way to go, is going to really help leaders help their employees grow, be challenged, thrive, without necessarily having to go through all of the tape through H.R. and senior leadership to promote, give raises, etc. There’s other avenues to help people feel connected.

Kelly: [00:24:54] So let’s get let’s go to the second one: the connection and the attachment with the team. What does attachment with a team look like? How how do you create that practically speaking?

Don: [00:25:05] Clearly the team needs to work well together. Managers need to focus on getting a team aligned. One of the things that we do in our Boot Camp on Employee Engagement for Managers is we give them four really solid ways to get their teams aligned. We wouldn’t be able to cover all of those in this podcast, but how do we get people marching in the same direction? One of the ways to do that is to create a sense of shared social identity among the team members. What are we doing, what is our goal, what’s our mission, what’s our purpose? And we’re all marching in that direction. In addition to what is our goal, our purpose, how do we want to accomplish that? What does it look like relationally when we do that? How are we going to interact with each other? How do we hold each other accountable? How do we make that happen?

Don: [00:25:52] And also for managers, we really work hard to try to help them create, develop, nurture a sense of purpose in the work they’re doing. The illustration I give to managers there is a really simple one. Imagine I’m walking along a sidewalk and there’s a construction project happening on the property just adjacent to the sidewalk. There are masons doing all kinds of work on this construction site. I come up to the first mason and I say, “Hey what what are you doing? And he looks up to me and he says, “I’m laying brick.” I say, “Wow, that’s great. You’re doing a great job. It looks really good.” I walk down the sidewalk a little bit and I come across a second mason and I say, “Hey, what are you doing? And he looks up at me and he says, “I’m building a wall.” I said, “Wow, it’s straight. It’s just totally plumb. Nice job. This looks awesome.” And I walked down the sidewalk a little bit further and I come to a third mason and I said, “What are you doing?” And he looks up at me and he says, “I’m building a church.”.

Don: [00:26:50] I asked CEOs and managers “Do you know your church? Is that is that narrative something that you’ve shared with your employees so they know what they’re building at the highest order of purpose?” I think more CEOs, more managers, need to know what their churches and are they sharing it with their employees so that we know we’re not just bricklayers. I’ve got nothing against bricklayers, but look these people lay in brick, they’re not just laying brick. They’re creating something. They’re creating the edifices of our lives.

Don: [00:27:26] Let’s focus on that and help employees see that. Some managers see it, some don’t see it. But they need to see it, they need to find it, need to identify it. What is your church, manager, leader, CEO? And are you sharing that narrative with your employees?

Kelly: [00:27:40] Let’s talk about the third one: attachment with the leader. We often talk about hierarchy as the most enduring form of leadership and how valuable it is to a healthy functioning society, and certainly the society inside of organizations. How can a leader create attachment between their employees and themselves?

Don: [00:28:04] You said it, hierarchy is the most enduring form of leadership Homo sapiens have ever created. I’m probably going to find some detractors here because I am not a fan of the flat hierarchy approach. I think it’s interesting experimentation, but I know one very well-known company – I think within six to nine months that they tried that – 25 percent of their employees quit.

Don: [00:28:28] This is the issue: employees need to be a part, their opinions need to count, but the fact is, want to know that there are people in charge that are making good decisions so that we don’t have to make them. We want employees identifying with leaders. What does that mean? A strong leader, yes but not hierarchical behaviorally. But someone who does listen, does pay attention, is something the brain would define as safe. But safe for a leaders can be a little bit different than safe for a colleague. Trustworthy, honest, predictable, consistent, collaborative, motivational, purpose-based, values-based, moral. These are some of the things that help create a sense of safety with a leader and a connection with a leader.

Don: [00:29:18] Many of us would like to follow someone who has real clarity on what needs to be done because we don’t have as much clarity. We want to hitch our wagon is something that feels important and valuable, because if the issue is important and valuable, our connection and being part of it makes us more valuable. Not only feel more valuable, but we are more valuable in what we’re accomplishing.

Kelly: [00:29:43] Let’s get to the final point: the connection with the mission and vision of the organization. For some organizations, and you mentioned health care just a minute ago, sometimes that value and the connection, the mission and meaning and purpose, is so clear you know that you are saving people’s lives. You know that you are healing. You know that you are contributing to the greater good of society. For some organizations that mission and vision of helping people might not be nearly as clear. How do we, regardless of industry, help employees attach to mission and vision in the organization? What does a CEO or a senior leader need to think about?

Don: [00:30:23] This is similar to what I talked about finding where our churches, you know this mission and vision. For some organizations, as you said, it’s going to be overtly humanistic. That is, I’m helping saving people’s lives. I’m improving the quality of life for people. In other worlds, there are people for example that do work in Six Sigma and Lean. There is great purpose there in finding efficiency and finding new value that wasn’t there before. Helping organizations do things in a more efficient and effective way. For some people, that will resonate with them very loudly. Others want to be more hands on. Leaders need to identify what that mission is, the sense of purpose that surrounds it in a way that’s going to resonate with as many employees as possible. There will be some missions and visions that don’t resonate with all employees and for them going to work is more likely to feel like a job and a paycheck.

Don: [00:31:22] I would like all of us to be able to identify that in a stronger way. I’ll give you one example that I found in a client company. We think of maintenance workers, people pushing a broom, as perhaps being at the low end of the totem pole in terms of entry level and low paying jobs. In this organization, they were struggling with safety issues as they grew in size and the complexity and size of their, literally their machines and apparatus, were getting bigger and more dangerous. They needed people that were moving around the the organization and the manufacturing floor who could see things and be sensitive to things, as opposed to people working just at their station and doing their one thing losing their peripheral vision. So they’re asking “who has the most peripheral vision on the shop floor?” And it turned out to be the maintenance people. They started integrating the maintenance people into the safety team. They made them a part of the safety team. “Here’s things we need you looking for. Here’s things that are the most likely to cause accidents. When you see them, please let us know and here’s how to do it.” These maintenance employees got a renewed sense of mission about what they did and they actually got on their uniforms, they got little safety team emblems that were sewn onto their shirts. They weren’t just people cleaning up and doing maintenance. They were part of the safety team. Completely changed their perspective of what they brought to work everyday. And they did become more engaged.

Kelly: [00:32:52] When you increase in employees scope beyond the day to day tasks that they are required to do or asked to do from their job description, you dig deeper in facilitating that attachment. Not just to the mission and vision of your organization, though that’s certainly a key driver, but also to the leader who’s helping expand their role, their scope, and to their team members that they’re contributing to and benefiting from everyday.

Kelly: [00:33:16] Thank you so much for this conversation today. These four key areas that drive adult attachment in the workplace are so important to the work that we do, to the leaders in organizations all across the company, all across America and I really appreciate the insights you brought to adult attachment today.

Don: [00:33:36] Thank you Kelly. Great questions. Really enjoyed the conversation.

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