Adult Attachment Theory: The Science of Employee Engagement

Understanding Engagement

Early man discovered a harsh reality when it comes to survival in a primitive era – the best defense in a hostile and violent environment wasn’t a spear or a shield – it was a clan or a tribe. For hundreds of thousands of years our predecessors lived every day with a simple, yet life-preserving directive; get into a group and become trusted, reliable, useful, and valued. Over centuries, this drive for community and connection has impacted virtually every thought and action we process. Humans are – at our core – herd animals, the result of hardwiring in the brain that preferences social connection more highly than just about anything else.

This need to belong, from cradle to grave, has been well documented in research around attachment needs for decades. And the more specific research around adult attachment by Dr. Susan Johnson in conjunction with Dr. James Coan’s Social Baseline Theory removes any ambiguity on the neurological benefits of safe and secure connections.

The science behind adult attachment clearly establishes that without safe and secure relationships, we become “emotionally isolated.” Emotional isolation is devastating to the human nervous system; it is inherently traumatizing. Being disconnected (personally and professionally) from others takes a severe mental, emotional, and even physical toll.

Without safe and secure relationships – at work or at home – we become “emotionally isolated.”

Attachment Theory holds critical answers to human vulnerability throughout our lives. With its primary goals of protection and security, whether at home or at the office, seeking and maintaining safe and secure relationships, “is viewed as the primary motivating principle in human beings and an innate survival mechanism.” Threats – real or perceived – activate the attachment system, which drives one toward a protective figure such as a boss, leader, or parent.

Finding reassurance, support, and protection, safe attachments help individuals cope with threats and maintain focus. In a work context, this mental load sharing helps an employee respond and/or cope with the threat, better enabling the individual to return to the task at hand. Without the benefit of load sharing with a reliable attachment figure, the individual is far more likely to remain preoccupied, with lower levels of focus, clarity, and creativity, and risk-taking.

Research in adult attachment in the workplace indicates that employees will use their relationship with a group as a safe haven (a source of support and comfort) and as a secure foundation for growth and exploration. This process is enhanced by the cohesiveness of the group, which increases an employee’s ability to learn and improves their team performance.
These conditions, when offered in consistent and predictable ways, allows employees to thrive. 

The connections we make at work, especially with our leaders, can provide a secure foundation and a safe haven that enhances an employee’s ability to function closer to their full capacity.

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