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Myriad factors affect how you relate to colleagues. There are the personalities in the office, the kind of boss you have and the company culture more broadly. However, if you find yourself constantly falling into the same unhelpful patterns – perhaps you struggle to accept negative feedback, avoid asking others for help or you fear failing – there could be another less obvious source to your problems.

The nature of your parents’ relationship, and especially whether they solved problems amicably and constructively or resorted to conflict, could have shaped your way of relating to others. In the psychological jargon, if your parents were forever bickering, or worse, they might have shaped your ‘attachment style’. This could cast a cloud over your ability to form healthy relationships at work.

If you struggle to accept negative feedback, it may not just be your natural disposition – it may have to do with your 'attachment style' (Credit: Alamy)

Attachment theory, first proposed by the British psychologist John Bowlby in the middle of the last century, proposes that our formative relationships – especially with our parents – shape how we relate to others through life, known as our attachment style. In basic terms, people have either ‘secure attachment’, meaning they are confident in their worth and trust others; ‘anxious attachment’, in which they have low self-worth and fear rejection and neglect by others, constantly seeking reassurance; or ‘avoidant attachment’, which means they too have low self-worth and low trust of others, but cope by avoiding getting too close to others in the first place.

There are many contributing factors to the kind of attachment style we develop, including the responsiveness of our parents, as well as our own personality, which itself reflects a mix of environmental and genetic factors. Also relevant, however, is our parents’ relationship with each other. For children, parents provide a model for how disagreements should be resolved in close relationships – indeed, whether they can be resolved at all – and research suggests this has consequences for children’s later attachment style.

If your parents were forever bickering, or worse, they might have shaped your ‘attachment style’, which could cast a cloud over your ability to form healthy relationships at work

These kind of studies do typically suffer from a genetic confound – that is, any associations between children’s behaviour and parents’ behaviour could be explained, at least in part, by their having shared genes. That limitation notwithstanding, consider one study involving 157 couples, which found those individuals whose parents had divorced when they were children were more likely to have an insecure attachment style as adults. Or take a study by psychologists at Purdue University Calumet in the US state of Indiana, in which 150 undergrads recalled the amount of conflict in their parents’ relationship and then rated their attachment style. Students who recalled more conflict tended to have more anxious and avoidant attachment styles. 

If your parents were forever bickering, you may have developed an attachment style learned from this formative – and sometimes rocky – relationship (Credit: Alamy)

For many years, attachment theory has mostly been used to examine how people’s attachment style, as formed in their childhood, influences their behaviour in their adult romantic relationships (not surprisingly, the two insecure attachment styles are associated with poorer quality adult romantic relationships). Increasingly, however, work psychologists are turning to attachment theory to help explain employee behaviour in the office, with the number of papers taking this approach spiralling in recent years.

Personal style

There are various ways your attachment style could affect your work behaviour. For instance, if you are anxiously attached, you might be extra fearful of facing rejection for turning in a poor performance (on the plus side, you might also be more alert to threats, perhaps making you an ideal whistle-blower). If you have an avoidant attachment style, you are more likely to mistrust your managers and colleagues. These deep-rooted psychological processes also affect bosses – for example, those with a secure attachment style are more inclined to delegate.

Such findings are borne out in personal stories. Sabrina Ellis, 32, a mental health nurse and organisational psychologist, recalls verbal and physical violence between her parents, and later between her mother and step-father. “Growing up …  there were no male or female adults in my household I could trust, and I felt like I had to protect myself even as a young woman,” she says. Sabrina believes this caused problems earlier in her career, especially rebuilding trust with male colleagues who let her down.

These deep-rooted psychological processes also affect bosses – for example, those with a secure attachment style are more inclined to delegate

Kiran Kaur, a 34-year-old management consultant, believes her parents’ relationship affected her both positively and negatively. They avoided conflict with each other and presented a united front (something Kaur has emulated in her teamwork), but at the same time they shut out others with alternative perspectives. “This impacted my approach to working with teams because I did not invite open discussion either,” she says.

Your attachment style is not destiny, though. Recent research has shown attachment style evolves to some extent through life in response to current circumstances. If you are fortunate to have a dependable, loving partner, this is likely to increase your confidence and trust in others – manifesting in a secure attachment style. This is a process that’s been called the ‘dependency paradox’ – that is, having someone to depend on increases our autonomy.

A negative blueprint from your parents isn't necessarily a path to conflict or shyness – you can channel it to be productive and grow as a leader too (Credit: Alamy)

Also being more conscious of your relationship tendencies, borne of your childhood experiences, can enable you to take steps to ameliorate them or turn them to your advantage. Kaur says the unhelpful avoidance of conflict and closed-mindedness, which she believes she picked up from her parents is something that she started addressing 10 years ago when a colleague first pointed it out. “I [now] invite discussion and try to be as open minded as possible,” she says.

Ellis too has managed to adapt in positive ways. “Throughout my career I have avoided conflict and consciously learnt new ways to resolve issues and address concerns professionally by remaining solution-focused,” she says. “This has been very productive and [helped me be] successful as a leader in teams and as a colleague to other professionals.”

Your ways of relating to others at work might have deep roots, but if psychology has taught us one thing, it’s that learning is possible through life. That applies to your attachment style and personality as much as to acquiring a new language or taking up a new sport. Speaking as a psychologist, being more aware of these interpersonal processes and their roots means there’s no reason why you too can’t adapt and become a more effective colleague or manager.

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