For some people, maintaining close contact with colleagues or friends is natural: trust comes easily and expectation of mutual goodwill and exchange forms a strong basis for all professional relationships.
But for others, life is not so simple.
Many people, even highly successful professionals, are encumbered with dysfunctional attachment patterns formed in early childhood. In later life, this can lead to unhealthy thoughts conflictive relationships and behaviours such as the constant seeking of approval from others, excessive irritation towards clingy or needy colleagues, or the temptation to create a distance in professional exchanges.
This can lead to problems with self-esteem; impulsiveness; discomfort with anger; jealousy; isolation; an inability to support others; lack of empathy and difficulties creating and maintaining friendships.
If left untreated, these patterns can intensify in times of stress and become more obvious as executives move up the career ladder.
We are all products of attachment behaviour
In his seminal work on attachment, the psychoanalyst John Bowlby noted that the ability to form attachments is biologically driven. Children’s mental representations or working models of relationships, including their systems of thought, expectation, emotions and behaviour, all act as a template for the way they engage and handle future relationships.
People with low anxiety and low avoidance issues are likely to have secure attachment patterns in adulthood, a relatively high sense of self-esteem and good social skills.
Those with low avoidance but high anxiety are likely to be self-critical and insecure. The lives of these anxious-ambivalent, preoccupied, often “clingy” adults are usually not balanced. These people are high maintenance, constantly want to be heard and will often provoke conflict.
Meanwhile, adults with high avoidance patterns, either dismissive avoidant (those with low anxiety) or fearful avoidant (those with high anxiety) find relating to others extremely difficult. Fearful avoidant people want human interaction and contact but are afraid of rejection, while dismissive avoidant people seem to be completely unable to form personal relationships.
Do I have what it takes?
Young executives with attachment disorders may encounter few problems early in their career when their role focuses on their area of expertise. As they become more senior, this changes and they are expected to take a more proactive position, to inspire those around them.
Many chief executives find themselves asking continually: Do I have what it takes? Am I too dependent on others? In many cases these negative perceptions can relate back to attachment disorders. Difficult to change
Attachment disorders are quite resistant to change, but they can be modified. Positive new life experiences and appropriate interventions can be the catalyst to changing relationship patterns. But the first step can only be taken when there is recognition of the problem. If a person with attachment disorders asks for help then a safe, secure environment is needed where they can face their inner demons.
This can be done in group or private coaching programmes, or with the help of a psychotherapist to encourage the individual to develop the capacity to trust and express emotions in a more appropriate manner.
Leadership is a team sport
Leaders can’t afford to be too aloof. Attachment behaviour reflects itself in leadership style, and dysfunctional patterns can have a detrimental effect on an organisation.
True recovery from attachment disorders only occurs when individuals face their inner demons. They must realise that the way they deal with these issues will influence how they deal with problems. They have to transcend old dysfunctional behaviour patterns and find new ones more adaptive to their current stage in life.
Manfred Kets de Vries is an Insead distinguished professor of leadership development & organisational change at Insead and the founding director of the business school’s Global Leadership Centre.
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