The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Attachment styles and leadership

In the 1950s John Bowlby laid the foundation for what would become attachment theory. From being relevant for babies, attachment theory evolved to impact learning and organizations.

Through his work with children, Bowlby had developed a strong belief in the impact of family experience on a child’s emotional and behavioral well-being. He proposed that psychoanalysts working with children should take a holistic perspective. It means to consider the children’s living environment in addition to the behaviors exhibited by the children themselves.

The work of organizational learning pioneers like Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, and others shows that such a holistic perspective is as useful when working with people in organizations.

Bowlby argued, that humans have a biological based attachment behavioral system. It leads them to seek proximity to primary caregivers. They hope to develop a secure base from which they can explore the world. It’s one of the many ways nature organizes survival.

For a child, such secure base results from physical presence and emotional availability of the caregiver.

Already during the first few months, the babies develop an idea of how available their caregivers are to them and how to react to them. Bowlby and Ainsworth described this with four attachment styles. That is secure, insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent, or insecure disorganized attachment.

To have a secure attachment style children need to be able to develop the confidence of seeking safety in relationship as well as to take the freedom to explore the world. Caregivers who are attuned to the emotional needs of their children help to develop such confidence. They comfort the child when upset and encourage their autonomy when settled.

Babies developing the insecure avoidant style, learn to avoid showing their distress upon separation. They appear as being self-contained, self-reliant, and not a nuisance to their parents. Actually, they hide the distress by focusing on the task or play they were at rather than showing their interest in the relationship.

Babies who are expressive in the relationship, who show their distress upon separation and possibly their frustration at reunion  lean towards an insecure ambivalent attachment style.

The insecure disorganized attachment style reflects the difficulty babies have to find predictability in the relationship. The lack of predictability makes it impossible for them to develop a strategy with which they can organize their relationship.

These lead to an internal working model of a person’s attachment relationships. It’s a model that describes a framework of the child’s belief about their self-worth and how much they can depend on others to meet their needs.

We can also see these attachment styles as a continuum of emotional regulation. It remains active in adulthood and influences our ability to live the flow of connection and separation of daily life.

It is a spectrum that has insecure avoidant attachment at one end and insecure ambivalent at the other. The midpoint of this spectrum is secure attachment. It’s located between overly organized strategies for controlling and minimizing emotions and the uncontrolled, disorganized, and ineffectively managed emotions.

Leaders can become aware of their attachment styles. They can also observe those present in their organization. It allows them to see the dynamic influencing relationships. One that may create silos and show other behaviors perceived as dysfunctional for the system. The team’s ability to be attuned to one another strengthens relationships and focus.


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