If your relationship with your boss is going through a rough patch, new research has some surprising answers about what’s behind those rocky workplace relationships. Here’s how to spot them and what to do about them.
The study How Leader and Follower Attachment Styles Are Mediated by Trust has uncovered a link between parenting styles and how people establish workplace relationships, particularly with their boss or manager.
Researcher Dr Peter Harms, an assistant professor at University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce, says he and his colleagues speculated that individuals might carry patterns of thinking learned as far back as infancy.
“It seems cliché, but, once again, we end up blaming mum for everything in life,” Harms laughs. “It really is about both parents, but because mothers are typically the primary caregivers of children, they usually have more influence.”
The findings, published in the journal Human Relations, focus on the various ‘attachment styles’ people with unreliable parents develop as a means of coping. The theory goes like this: Babies with reliable parents grow up to accept that other individuals are potential sources of assistance. Harms says these people are the least likely to be put in an emotional spin by a neglectful manager.
“Secure individuals have a long history of caring relationships, so they have other people who they can fall back on,” he explains.
Anxious and avoidant attachment
On the flip side, individuals with unreliable parents tend not to see parents as sources of support. These people are often categorised as having anxious or avoidant attachment, depending on the style they adopted to cope with distress.
“Avoidant people feel, ‘I don’t want to love you, and you don’t need to love me. So just leave me alone.’ You won’t find these people weeping over broken relationships,” Harms says. “On the other hand, anxiously attached people genuinely want to be loved, but they are nervous that the important people in their lives won’t return their affection.
“Essentially, we figured that bosses would matter less to individuals with secure or avoidant attachment styles,” Harms says.
Their findings showed that when anxious followers were paired with supportive leaders, they were perfectly fine. But when they were paired with distant, unsupportive leaders, the anxiously attached employees reported higher levels of stress and lower levels of performance.
“They felt threatened,” said Harms. “Their deep-seated anxieties leak out, and it starts to preoccupy them in an unhealthy way.”
In general, avoidant individuals reported lower levels of stress but also less willingness to establish close workplace relationships with co-workers. “Good boss, bad boss. Whatever. They just don’t care. They just want to do their job and go home,” Harms says.
The good news is that a supportive work environment will allow even someone with anxious attachment to thrive.
“We can make a difference even if people come into the workplace with insecurities,” Harms says. “Our research shows that a mother or father figure later in life can provide that needed support, even in the context of the workplace.”
What does this study mean for your workplace relationships?
The study poses some interesting questions for supervisors and managers in the workplace, and might shed some light on why some workplace relationships are more strained than others.
Based on previous studies with similar results, author and Associate Professor of Management David Burkus published some thoughts on how the findings can be applied in the workplace.
“If you are a supervisor, it’s important to understand that people react to stress at work differently, and not everyone will view your attempts to provide support as beneficial,” he writes.
“Your employees with a secure attachment style will accept your support, but they are less likely to need it because they probably have a very well developed and healthy support network, both at work and outside of work.
“Your employees with an anxious attachment style need your support more than others and will likely welcome it. Your employees with an avoidant attachment style will likely let you know they think they are just fine and neither need nor want your help.”