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The ties that bind: Attachment and leadership

Exploring attachment theory applied to leadership
July 26, 2014

10-Tips-to-double-your-LinkedIn-connectionsThis blog explores the connection raised by Emma Kate West (MA) between attachment theory and effective management and leadership.

Bowlby’s attachment theory outlines how young infants develop attachment to their parents or carers and explores the usually negative effects of lack of attachment.  It is a well established theory and still central to Social work theory and practice today.

A question raised by Emma Kate West is how can attachment theory inform our understanding of “good” management and leadership practice?

What is it that enables staff teams to form strong and healthy attachments to their managers in a way that promotes both individual and team flourishing?  and what contributes to poor attachment resulting in disaffected staff, increased staff turn over and higher staff absenteeism?

In my experience of working with a number of middle and senior managers in a range of organisations, I can identify 7 key behaviours that contribute to positive attachments and positive individual, team and organisational outcomes.

1.  Walk the talk  Managers who model the behaviours they require of others, gain respect and admiration.

2.  Under promise and over deliver.  Managers who consistently “go the extra mile” and manage staff expectations cultivate a loyalty amongst their staff and a willingness to contribute discretionary effort beyond official role profiles or job requirements.

3.  Give honest, appropriate and timely developmental feedback.  Staff consistently value managers who they know seek to genuinely develop their staff and even “negative” feedback is valued if given at the appropriate time and not saved up for an annual appraisal.

4.  Tell it like it is. In an age of rhetoric and political spin, staff find it refreshing to find a manager who is open and real and will confront issues rather than circumvent or ignore them!

5.  Listen.  Staff value managers who effectively and actively listen to them because they feel “seen” “heard” and most importantly “understood”.

6. Appreciate.  Manages who understand that the  5:1 ratio of positive to negative is essential to emotional investment, regularly find ways to give work based recognition and never fail to thank people even if they are just “doing their job”.

7. Admit mistakes and apologise.  Managers who admit mistakes and don’t seek to play the “blame game” actually gain more respect than those who never make mistakes (so long as the mistakes aren’t frequent and evidence of total incompetence!)  A genuine apology often does more to build trust than never having made the mistake in the first place.

As the research by  Adrian Gostick et al shows, (see “The Carrot principle: How the best managers use recognition to engage their people”) people don’t leave jobs they leave managers.  Emma Kate West’s idea of linking attachment theory to effective management gives an underpinning rationale for understanding this dynamic in a more integrative way.  I suggest these seven behaviours engender an “attachment” to a manager which can increase staff retention, motivation, innovation, risk taking, and even ensure greater organisational success.


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Kairos celebrancy, leadership and coaching - About Tania WestKairos white logo
We all have “defining moments” in our lives and I am passionate about helping you mine the gold in them.

Make the most of your “defining moments” whether that’s a celebration around a significant rite of passage, a new relationship, a significant crossroads in your marriage, or a leadership opportunity that requires you to up your game.

Tania West, co-founder and working director of Kairos.
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