The manager as a herd leader in an age of uncertainty

  • What do patterns of attachment have to do with the manager-employee relationship?
  • What styles of attachment do we distinguish?
  • In the current situation of uncertainty and crisis, how can a manager react when they notice employee anxiety?
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Relationships determine the proper development of every human being. It’s thanks to the ability to create close relationships with our parents, and then with other groups, that we become social beings who can pursue our own needs, goals, and aspirations. This ability distinguishes not only us humans, but also all mammals from other, less evolved animals. Attachment patterns indicate how we build relationships with other people. They also inform the degree of trust with which we enter into relationships, how we become acquainted, and how we behave when faced with a fear or threat. In evolutionary terms, they tell us when we are in a life-threatening situation and when we should seek support and help from other people in order to survive. All of this is shaped to a large extent by the first three years of our lives, though the effects extend into our adult lives, both private and professional. In the first years of our lives, it’s our parents and guardians that give us a sense of security. Later on, those with whom we have a close relationship - either personal or professional - can give us the same sense. Some employees may have such a relationship with their manager. What does that mean for the manager? First of all, it means that when there’s danger, anxiety or severe stress, the employee’s attachment complex is activated. Knowing what the consequences could be and what to do in such a situation can be a great resource for managers.

Attachment styles

It’s important to understand that an attachment style is an instinctive, unconscious, and automatic reaction. According to the researchers, attachments are formed correctly in about 70% of people. The remaining 30% probably experienced certain difficulties in their relationships with their parents in their early lives; now, in situations of stress, crisis, and threats, these people may exhibit maladaptive means of coping. The question may arise - as managers, what do we need this knowledge for? The story of one of my clients can help us understand. During a meeting, he reported that the pandemic has caused major organisational changes at his company. The vast majority of employees were delegated to work from home, while some decided to take leave to look after their children. This overloaded other employees and created problems with client service. Fewer orders and anxiety about the future resulted in increasing difficulties. What worried the manager the most was the way he used to manage such difficulties simply didn’t work for some employees. He wondered how it was possible that despite disciplinary intervention, an employee who had previously been conscientious and had always coped well with the tasks entrusted to them just couldn’t seem to be sufficiently productive, and eventually requested unpaid leave. This story is a good example of how a person who has attachment difficulties functions. When faced with a sudden crisis, these employees don’t behave in accordance with their previous patterns or their manager’s expectations. Permanent stress activates the attachment system and has a real impact on brain functions, including by limiting the function of the prefrontal cortex (the ‘control centre’), as well as language functions, creative thinking, empathy, mathematical skills, etc. Under these conditions, the brain shifts to thinking in terms of “I want to survive, not to be liked.” Such employees have less access to their own cognitive resources; therefore, in extreme situations, they exhibit unexpected behaviours. We can assume that attachment was formed correctly for the rest of the team, because after the adaptation period they were able to return to their duties. These people oriented themselves in their new reality faster, adapted to the new situation, and showed greater trust in their manager.

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