Anxious And Avoidant Attachment At Work

Secure attachment is a personality trait characteristic of those that can work autonomously as well as with others when appropriate. In my own study of 161 employees of an assisted living center and their supervisors, my colleagues and I found that secure attachment had a positive relationship with hope and trust, and a negative relationship with burnout. In our study, the ability to form a trusting relationship with one’s supervisor was the only significant predictor of job performance.

In contrast to securely attached individuals, anxiously attached people are overdependent and avoidantly attached people are counterdependent on others. Overdependent people cling too tightly to others and as a result tend to drain their critical social support networks, while counterdependent people, believing that no one will be available to turn to, isolate themselves and resist supportive gestures from others.

A study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds some light on the effects of anxious and avoidant attachment styles in the workplace. The researchers summarize their findings as follows:

Taken together, our results are generally consistent with attachment theory in that avoidant individuals tend to be self-reliant and disengage from affiliation with others by suppressing negative emotions and not seeking support to deal with work difficulties, whereas anxious individuals tend to display dysfunctional interaction patterns by being less likely to display prosocial behavior and more likely to think about quitting their job. (p. 11).

One interesting finding from this research was that attachment anxiety was positively related to seeking support at work. This implies that overdependent individuals might be more likely to seek support for stressful situations at work than in romantic or family contexts.

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. 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.

Understanding is the key to working with personality at work. Understand your own personality first, and then try to discern the individual differences of your colleagues and employees. Remember, you cannot change anyone’s personality, including your own. But if you understand personality, you can change the thing you have the most control of at work – your own behavior.


Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.


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David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

4 thoughts on “Anxious And Avoidant Attachment At Work”

  1. Excellent article! Your point about the importance of the relationship between supervisor and direct report as a predictor of job satisfaction is consistent with other studies. However these studies have focused on the behavior of the supervisor while your study focused on the personality of the direct report – an interesting and important perspective. As I think about the implications, I would like to know more ie. what %age of the population falls into each of these categories and how they can be recognized. Thanks for posing some great food for thought. I hope you write more on this topic.

  2. Welcome, Jesse. Please forgive my slow response to your excellent comment. I never thought about it until you mentioned it, but I like studies that link personality traits to attitudes. Very rarely to personality traits have direct effects on important outcomes, they almost always work through other things, like attitudes. Thanks! Bret

  3. Great article. Very well-written and very informative. As much as possible, anxiously and avoidantly attached people should be ignored. Overdependent people can be too clingy and can irritate/annoy someone, especially when that someone has a lot of things to do. While counterdependent people can also be annoyig. They would isolate themselves so much from the team that it would be almost impossible to work with them. If you are someone who wants isolation, you should not have applied for a job that would require you to work with a team. One of the factors that contributes to job satisfaction is having a good relationship with you team.

    1. Welcome, Maria! I think it’s important to note that these are personality traits, not job attitudes. Attitudes can change, personalities are much more stable. We can’t ban certain personality types from any workplace, we just have to learn to recognize them and work with them. Thanks! Bret

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Anxious And Avoidant Attachment At Work

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