The research, which was based off of existing evidence that parenting styles affect the way children approach relationships, analyzed how attachment styles influence the way employees interact with their supervisors. The original research by John Bowlby, an early psychoanalyst, focused on how parents dealt with crying babies—did the parents let the child cry or comfort the infant?
According to the theory of attachment, when babies are distressed, children learn if they can’t rely on their parents for help. Those babies eventually stop making overt signals for help. Eventually, that distrust transfers to people outside the family, too, and the children tend to become anxious or avoidant.
But, the theory goes, when parents rush to comfort their children, the infant learns that higher levels of distress will earn them immediate attention. These babies see their parents as reliable sources of support, and that trust transfers to outsiders, as well.
“Anxiously attached people genuinely want to be loved, but they are nervous that the important people in their lives won’t return their affection,” researcher Dr. Peter Harms said in a statement. “So, they overreact anytime they think their relationships are threatened. They use guilt and extreme emotional displays so that others will stay near and reassure them. They get really upset and can’t turn it off. On the other hand, avoidant people feel, ’I don’t want to love you, and you don’t need to love me. So just leave me alone.’ You won’t find these people weeping over broken relationships.”
The goal of this particular study was to see if the theory held true for workplace relationships between a boss and an employee, too. “Your boss is sort of like your parent,” Harms said. “They’re the ones who can take care of you, they’re supposed to train you and support you. This is especially true for individuals new to the workforce.”
Researchers found that a boss’s management style mattered less to secure and avoidant individuals. “Secure individuals have a long history of caring relationships, so they have other people who they can fall back on," Harms said. “And avoidant individuals just simply don’t care.”
Anxious employees, on the other hand, thrived when paired with supportive bosses, but struggled with distant or unsupportive leaders. “They felt threatened,” Harms said. “Their deep-seated anxieties leak out, and it starts to preoccupy them in an unhealthy way.”
What to do if you have an anxious employee? Harms suggested offering support and attention early on until that trust is built up.