Wednesday, January 2, 2019
Attachment: Important, Yes, But not the Only Factor, Especially in the Workplace
Emotional development, cognitive development, personality development—even physical development—result from a lot of factors working simultaneously. Trying to choose one factor and make it do all the work is sort of like trying to claim that the condition of the tires is the one thing that determines how the car operates. Even if we’re not mechanics, it’s obvious to us that any one of dozens of items can make a car hard or impossible to drive—yet when it comes to thinking about how children develop into adults, it’s all too easy to focus exclusively on a single process or event.
For a number of years now, the single developmental factor that has received most attention in popular thinking has been attachment-- the internal state that underlies toddlers’ wish to be close to familiar people and their anxiety about separation and that seems to help shape their later perspectives on social relationships. Toddlers can be categorized as having different qualities of attachment behavior, and those different qualities are sometimes called attachment “styles”. Although trauma (broadly defined) is now giving attachment a run for its money as the major focus of pop psychology, attachment and “attachment disorders” remain in the lead when people want to have an explanation of development in which one size fits all aspects of childhood and adult personality and behavior.
An example of using attachment to explain everything appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago, in the business section no less (). The author, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, who describes herself as a time management coach, argues that problems at work, like accepting assignments when you shouldn’t, or other irrational decisions, result from “deep subconscious programming known as your ‘attachment style’ ”, which “dictates how you relate to other people, particularly in situations that trigger stress”. She suggests that people can “attach” to the workplace, making their attachment-based views of social relationships apply to their work. (I don’t quite follow this bit, as presumably most people, even those who work from home, experience their work as at least partly a matter of social interactions, so it seems redundant to postulate that a person is “attached” to the work itself, but never mind, this is the least of the problems.)
Saunders proceeds to tell how people can identify their own attachment styles and “take control of how you manage your time). She does not mention the Adult Attachment Interview, a standardized method for assessing attachment styles in adults, which are not necessarily the same styles those individuals showed as toddlers. Neither does she note that attachment is characteristic of a relationship between two people, not necessarily of the individual people themselves. Instead, Saunders turns to self-identified behavior toward other people as the key to “attachment style”. She describes “attachment styles” in the workplace as causing specific problems, and requiring specific solutions.
Saunders equates a fear of upsetting others with an anxious preoccupied attachment style and links this with compulsively checking email and reluctance to set boundaries. She suggests self-talk and asking for peer support as ways to overcome these problems. As a second possible category, she equates dismissiveness of criticism and mistrust of others’ ability, and resulting conflict, with dismissive avoidant attachment (even though the term “dismissive” in this context generally means that the person dismisses concerns about being cared for by others). These people, Saunders says, miss deadlines, work for unnecessarily long hours, and hate to be micromanaged. She suggests the need to “consciously work on your emotional intelligence, including recognizing…that there is value in working harmoniously with others”; apparently Saunders believes that that “deep subconscious programming” can be overcome by conscious decision-making. As a third “work attachment” category, which she calls fearful avoidant attachment, Saunders suggests that some workers may be fearful of threats and lack confidence that they can overcome them, which she apparently considers analogous to a toddler’s snubbing his mother on reunion after a separation. These people, she says, spend their time on social media or reorganizing their desks as an escape from dealing with their assigned tasks. They too need to use positive self-talk and get peer support, according to Saunders. Finally, people who can work effectively and maintain a good work-life balance, who can ask for help or give it, have secure attachment styles (and presumably that’s how you know they have secure attachment styles).
Let me pose a question here. Would it have made the slightest difference to the value of the discussion by this time management coach if she had omitted to mention attachment or attachment styles at all? What if she had said this: If you compulsively check email and have trouble with boundaries, do some positive talk to yourself and ask others to help you with the problem. If you don’t trust others and dismiss criticism too easily, try asking others to manage you so you can experience this as not so painful, and try to think a lot about how other people think and feel. If you spend your time on social media and organizing your desk, tell yourself positive things about your work and its value and ask other people to support you on this. If you don’t have any of these problems, just keep doing what you’re doing.
Given that these solutions work (and I have no idea whether they do), they are the important part of the article. The focus on attachment is just the spoonful of sugar that may or may not make the medicine go down-- and of course it appeals to the desire we all have to think about the great Me. No doubt talking about attachment in the business section also had a piquancy that helped get this piece published. But the fact remains that attachment is neither a necessary nor a sufficient explanation for problematic workplace behaviors.
I await with interest an article on a trauma-informed approach to poor work habits.