90,000 hours—that’s how long an average person spends at work over the course of a lifetime, according to a study cited in Business Insider. 90,000 hours! And that may be on the conservative side; a more recent study I saw said we spend 13 years and 2 months of our lives at work. That’s over 115,000 hours. Most likely, the only activity you’ll spend more time on in your lifetime is sleeping (or trying to sleep).
So, if we spend the bulk of our waking hours at work, it is not a surprise that how we show up at work is effected by our upbringing—specifically, our earliest experiences in life with primary caretakers that formed what psychologists refer to as our “attachment style.” The research asserts that we all form an attachment style based on our first two years of life, and that model for relationships continues to shape how we relate to others into adulthood. Typically, your attachment style will shape the kind of romantic partners you choose and will influence the way you parent your own children. I recently read a New York Times article that explains how this “subconscious programming” also plays out in things like office relationships and time management.
Here are the 4 attachment styles and how they may show up at work:
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style: "A fear of upsetting others drives individuals with an anxious preoccupied attachment style. This fear-based approach leads to counterproductive behaviors—for example, struggling with a compulsion to check email incessantly to make sure everything is 'O.K.'….The idea of saying no may terrify you."
- Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Style: "Individuals with dismissive avoidant attachment at work tend to think they are smart and everyone else is stupid. Well, maybe not exactly stupid, but definitely not as smart as they are. They most likely decide what they should do and then ignore what others want. This leads to conflict and mistrust. This mistrust can lead to others attempting to micromanage and monitor them, which just makes them more annoyed and more likely to dismiss input."
- Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style: “'Stuck' is the best word to describe those with a fearful avoidant attachment style at work. They have the fear of those with anxious attachment without the confidence that they can make things right. Someone with anxious attachment would quickly open a potentially “threatening” email and reply to it as quickly as possible to avert danger. Someone with a fearful avoidant attachment style would see the email, freak out about it and then never open it. Never reading the email creates a compounding, paralyzing dread. They fear bad outcomes so strongly they never discover if the email from a client was simply an F.Y.I. or a full-out tirade."
- Secure Attachment Style: "Those with a secure attachment style at work take tasks as they come, do what they can and address issues that come up easily. They work hard and do not fear saying no when they feel they need to. They know they are capable, and they are confident that others will respond well to them."
The article is clear to offer the caveat that "attachment style at work can vary based on situation or circumstance. In one job or with one particular person or project, you may have an anxious attachment style, and in another circumstance, you may display more secure characteristics.” However, you may find it useful to think in terms of these styles if you find yourself frustrated or unable to complete tasks you know you should be doing. Once you identify your attachment style, you can take steps to address the underlying cause of your procrastination or challenges with certain people at work. For example, if you have insight into your tendency to respond in an anxious-avoidant way, you can proactively work on setting boundaries and practice calming skills like positive self-talk, support from others or exercise.
For leaders, expanding your thinking about your team to include this aspect of their mental paradigm could help you be more effective. Your team members are whole people, and you benefit from having them show up to work as a whole person—with all of their knowledge, skills, emotional intelligence, creativity, cultural diversity, values and wisdom borne of different life experiences and perspectives. If you are struggling with someone on your team not managing time well or not being as productive as you’d like, or if you're having difficulty in relationships with others, step back from the day-to-day of how the problem behavior shows up, and think a little bit about the root cause. Could it be related to their attachment style?
If so, you may try helping the person with coping strategies in addition to coaching on job skills and behaviors that align to your company’s Core Values. This may prove one of many valuable skills in your leadership toolkit or provide a key insight that allows you to show empathy and make a breakthrough with someone on your team.
Check out these additional resources on team accountability:
The Power of Systems and People: Accountable Leaders and Teams leadership development program to improve team performance.
Take Our Team Accountability Assessment to see how your team stacks up.
Learn more about accountable leaders and teams.