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Helping teams excel – Influence of attachment and psychological safety on team performance

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Team dynamics

Individual attachment between children and their primary attachment figures (often initially the mother) has been extensively studied by John Bowlby (1988) – founder of modern attachment theory – and his colleague Mary Ainsworth (1978), who introduced the term ‘secure base’.

Attachment styles

Safe attachment

In this form of attachment, there is a natural exchange of emotions between child and parent. The child learns that its emotions are given space and that expressing and discussing emotions leads to a deepening of the mutual bond and to development and growth. The child learns that the other can and wants to be a mirror and that, vice versa, the child can also be a mirror for the other.

Unsafe attachment with excessive boundaries

Here the child who expresses emotions faces a parent who cannot or does not want to cope with these emotions. When these boundaries are persistent, the child learns in the long term that emotions cannot be adequately shared. As a result, emotions are swallowed or end up in places where they do not belong. The conviction can arise that connection with others is not necessary to achieve development and growth. In the absence of another person to connect with emotionally, there is a chance that the child develops a low or negative self-image, combined with a fear that it will be (emotionally) abandoned.

Unsafe attachment with insufficient boundaries

Now, when emotions are involved, the child faces a parent who may have an ear and an eye for the emotions, but then lets their own emotions dominate. The child ends up in a situation where the discussion no longer seems to be about him, but about the other. This is confusing and in the long run will cause the child to keep his emotions inside, because he does not want to feel the confusion, and out of loyalty he does not want to put the parent in a situation where the parent is seemingly unable to handle the emotion. The child is less likely to rely on others emotionally.

Ambivalent attachment

A child who is ambivalently attached combines the two forms of insecure attachment mentioned above. The fear of abandonment is combined with a need for intimacy and connection with others. They have a more positive view of others than of themselves and are therefore less focused on themselves (and their own emotional well-being) than on others. They emotionally test others to see if they are available. If that availability is there, they often react dismissively or angrily to it. It is a pattern of attraction and withdrawal. Resulting in confusion for all involved.

The attachment styles are described from the perspective of the child and the parent, and are a blueprint for any relationship that is entered into. The way people have learned to entrust themselves to others is always a mix of the styles described. No one is completely securely or insecurely attached. There are vast individual differences and nuances. As a coach of teams, it is important to delve into the styles of attachment because it helps you better interpret behavior of people in teams. It offers tools to manage behavior of and between team members (Van Wielink, Fiddelaers-Jaspers & Wilhelm). The influence of the individual attachment style on the performance of a group is large, but not all-determining. It turns out that people express their individual attachment style differently in different situations. Four facets play an important role in this regard in groups (Rom & Mikulincer, 2003).

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