Early-life shaping experiences are important. Among them, there are few more important than the way our inherent curiosity and desire to explore are responded to by those who care for us. A reliable and responsive caregiver—in most cases our mother—encourages us to act on these growth-oriented impulses. These dynamics are usually framed conceptually and researched under the rubric of attachment theory.
The effects of these early experiences have enduring influence. We adopt certain dispositional tendencies in interpersonal relations based upon them, tendencies reflected in one of three "adult attachment styles." We'll briefly discuss them and how they influence our ways of relating to others. The good news is that even if our style is suboptimal and leaves us struggling with relational dynamics in ways that make leading and collaborating with other a challenge, they can be modified.
Secure Attachment and Formation of the Secure Base
Those of us who grew up in the presence of a generally attuned, supportive, and available caregiver are fortunate indeed. We acquired a "secure" sense of attachment. This felt sense of security is grounded in a quality of interaction that has been described as “implicit relational knowing.” We learned to trust that a competent other was there for us. She’d interpret our cries, gestures, and other nonverbal behaviors and respond to them in ways that usually were on target and satisfied our needs.
She may not have been perfect, but we soon came to trust her to be reliably present when we really needed help. Still, we were not smothered by an overprotective style of parenting. And with the sense that she was there, we were encouraged to do what we needed to do early in life, i.e., to venture out and explore our surrounding world. We could act on things and learn that we can have an effect. A will (and episodes of willfulness) emerged, and initiative.
This experience of relational security, or secure attachment, produced in us the earliest signs of confidence, autonomy, and self-efficacy. We also learned that we sometimes need help. We may not have always been up to the task we initiated. Falls and falling short were things we learned how to cope with. Indeed, we internalized a sense of resilience and optimism based upon the joint coping capabilities that were contributed by our mother and caregivers.
This capacity was internalized as a “secure base,” which was a core narrative and heart-felt belief that we could usually prevail, if not independently, then with the help of others. This trajectory of confidence and self-efficacy was robust enough to survive setbacks over the years, through youth and into adulthood. Each new venture and achievement reinforced this internal core of how we came to see ourselves; not as perfect or invincible, but as capable, and as willing and able to give and receive help with peers.
Insecurity and the Absence of a Secure Base
Studies in attachment estimate that this securely attached outcome reflects the status of about 60% of the adult population. The other 40% are characterized as insecure, either insecure-avoidant (20%) or insecure-preoccupied (20%). Let’s briefly explain these less-positive outcomes.
Those with the avoidant form experienced parenting that was inattentive, non-responsive, or even rejecting. It left the child believing that her expressed needs for support were unwelcome and would be ignored or rebuffed. As a result, the child learned to suppress expression of her needs. Why? Because as little ones we are dependent, and we don't want to risk alienating our caregiver, imperfect as she/he may be. By adulthood, one has learned that expressing feelings and trusting others is risky, i.e., "You're on your own."
The preoccupied form of insecure attachment stems from an experience that caregiver attentiveness and responsiveness is inconsistent, unpredictable, and may require the child to become a “squeaky wheel” to be heard. The child may be attuned more to the neediness of the parent than to her own needs. She may be cautious and unsure of whether her needs will be noticed, understood, and responded to. It breeds worry about losing favor, aversion to direct disagreement or conflict, and excessive needs for reassurance.
Adaptive Development and Change
A secure base enables us to "lean in" (as a recent book title puts it) and liberates us from the distractions of needless worry or the deafness to and avoidance of emotions. Either status of insecurity is associated with deficits in EQ (emotional intelligence). Put differently, awareness of and attunement to emotional meaning is a vital part of noticing the prevailing attitudes, struggles, and challenges of those you lead.
If you are blind to such social-emotional “data” or slow to respond to them, you are disadvantaged as a leader. So, what can you do to correct deficits in this area? What can you do to develop a more secure base from which to live and lead?
Seek a professional developmental relationship, preferably with a psychologist. You’ll need a trusting relationship in order to assess your current tendencies, how they originated, the “script” they generated, and, most important, in order to change that script.
Allow some time (e.g., 6 months) for change to take hold. It's a change that will free you of worry, make you a happier person, and enable you to be a more effective leader. It merits some serious effort. It takes 3 months to change any habit, and a bit longer for this kind of change.
Relate the development directly to contemporary relationships and work. Challenge yourself to make the change observable so you can notice it (others will notice, too). Insight, targeting change, and active, persistent experimentation are all critical.
As usual, I welcome your questions. Some topics, like this one, are not easily addressed fully in a brief blog. So, don’t hesitate to inquire if you find the topic relevant and would like to know more about how to follow up on it. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 617.312.5305.