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The following blog submission has been approved by the Board of the Attachment Network of Manitoba

Attachment In The Workplace

Leslie Johnston

So, have any of you ever had a boss?  Right, we all have. It’s one of those universal human experiences. Unless we were born wealthy and never had to work, most of us have had the experience of being supervised. Some of us may have had the experience of having a “good” supervisor, a few perhaps can say that they’ve had a “great” supervisor.  I suspect though, that many of us have had some frustrating experiences in the workplace related to a less-than-satisfactory supervisory relationship.  

That last word is the key – relationship.  And it’s what’s on my mind today – the supervisory experience.

Many years ago, maybe as many as two decades, I was first introduced to the Circle of Security© model, and its beautifully simple way of helping people understand attachment. One of the things that jumped out at me was the graphic of the larger hands overlaying the primary graphic, enveloping the whole circle, including the hands of the parent or caregiver. It was meant to illustrate that parents need to have “hands” holding them too – a support system, if you will. I loved that graphic, but my mind jumped ahead to a vision of a series of “nested hands”, which I tried to capture in the very unpolished diagram below.

My work at the time was with foster parents who were caring for children with complex trauma, including attachment wounds. In that context, this diagram starts on the right with a little child, who is being “held” by her foster parent (the first set of hands). The hands behind that were the hands of social workers like me, whose job it was to support that foster parent. The largest hands in the diagram represented the hands of our supervisors. And of course, the diagram doesn’t end there – there is obviously someone supervising the supervisor, and someone supervising that person, etc., etc.

What had become clear to me was that attachment could provide a model not only for parenting children, but for workplace relationships as well. The workplace is full of opportunities for exploration, if we feel supported, and it’s also a place where we thrive when we feel connected. Both sides of the circle are in plain sight.

So, what does our relationship with our supervisor look like, in most instances? Do we have opportunities to connect with our supervisor on a regular basis? If we do, does the agenda for those meetings consist of reporting to our supervisor with respect to the work that we’ve done, and then receiving our next assignment? Or, is there no regularly scheduled meeting, and do meetings only happen when you’ve made a mistake in your work, or aren’t meeting a quota, or someone has complained about you? Supervisors are busy too – I’ve been there – and sometimes the demands on their time don’t allow them to provide the kind of supervision they’d like to. Sometimes though, it’s a matter of putting in the time now to save time later. The benefits of a happy worker are well-documented; they perform better and are less transient. So, how could that relationship be different?

All we need to do is look to the concepts embedded in attachment theory. First of all, in order to perform optimally, we need to feel safe and supported. That means supervisors need to make the establishment of relationship “Job 1”. Supervisors need to take the time to get to know an employee as more than the person who sits at their desk. What does the rest of that person’s reality look like?  What other responsibilities do they have, what challenges do they face? This doesn’t mean that as supervisors we sit down with our employee and take a full social history! It means we take in interest in them, and gradually come to gain a fuller picture of their reality. 

The establishment of that relationship, if successful, will empower that employee to “explore”. So, for example, if your organization has recently adopted a new system of some kind, your employee is much more likely to “explore” that new task, because they feel supported to do so. They know that if they try it and don’t succeed the first time, they can come back to you with their frustration, and be helped to organize those feelings and maybe get some guidance about how to give it another try. Exploration is a huge part of the workplace experience. Most of us know that these days, workplaces, practices and procedures are in an almost constant state of flux. And the job of implementing those changes almost always falls to middle management. If those managers have created a climate where exploration is supported, and where employees are “welcomed in” when they struggle with change, the results are likely to be more positive for everyone.  

But it’s not just about workplace issues. Sometimes, it’s about being the person in an employee’s life to whom they can bring other struggles. We live in disconnected times. Many people do not have strong support networks of friends and family. Many people are alone. When we’re alone and struggling with a personal issue, how many of us perform at an optimal level at work? If a supervisor has established a safe, supportive relationship with an employee, they may be able to provide an experience of “being with” to that employee that allows them to feel heard, to have their “cup filled” and to then go on with their work day. I’ve used the phrase “may be able to”, but I’m going to go one further and say “trust me, it works”.  

Contrast this approach with the prevailing capitalist sensibilities that govern most of our workplaces. Productivity and efficiency are valued, but in many cases a reward and punishment system, rather than a relationship-based system is in place. You might receive a bonus if you work hard, and a pink slip if you don’t. But just as reward and punishment systems often only work in the short term when dealing with our children, the same can be true in the workplace. And when we know that relationship and connection are what make a worker feel supported enough to perform well, it is sad to see the word “boundaries” sometimes used to discourage supervisors from getting to know their employees as whole people.  

In the Attachment world, we spend a lot of time talking about children and parents, and that’s obviously vitally important. But just as important is this – that we bear in mind the principles of attachment in other areas and other relationships in our lives. We know that many children don’t receive the emotional care they need in childhood, and this can result in negative outcomes that ripple through our society in tragic ways. When we remember attachment principles in our dealings with adults, we may be providing an experience of acceptance and compassion to someone who has had very little experience of that. It’s one more chance to change the world, one human at a time. 

Leslie Johnston is a board member with the Attachment Network and is semi-retired after spending 35 years as a Social Worker and supervisor in the Child Welfare system. She is currently working part-time for the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. After many frustrating years working in the CFS system, her introduction to attachment principles opened the door to a better way to help foster parents support the children in their care. It also caused her to understand that the world would be a better place if parents and professionals could be helped to understand the importance of secure attachment

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