Attachment injury, workplace relationship, Attachment injuries in the workplace, Ending of work relationships

How to make sense of soured workplace relationships: Attachment injuries

Posted in Employee issues
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One does not usually think about attachment styles and attachment injuries when talking about employers and employees. And yet, most employer/employee relationships end because of a series of attachment injuries that leave the connections frayed.

In another post, I wrote about employee betrayal and how to recover from it: How to overcome employee betrayal: 5 steps to love resiliently. Here we trace the typical stages of an employer/employee relationship and how they can break down. 

What is an attachment injury?

Before examining the series of stages in employer/employee relationships, let’s understand what an attachment injury is. Twenty years ago, one of the pioneers in marital therapy theory, Dr. Susan Johnson, defined an attachment injury this way.

An attachment injury occurs when one partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring in times of danger or distress.

Johnson, S. M., Makinen, J. A., & Millikin, J. W. (2001). Attachment injuries in couple relationships: a new perspective on impasses in couples therapyJournal of marital and family therapy27(2), 145–155.

The hallmark of an attachment injury is an unmet expectation accompanied by intense emotional distress. And in those cases where the hurt is deep enough, the whole nature of the attachment is called into question. One wonders, “Well, if that is how you failed me, can I stay in the relationship at all?”

Fortunately for all, not every disappointing interaction rises to the level of questioning the attachment to the other. Sometimes we are just disappointed, and we find a way to get over it. 

But during times of danger or distress, we are more vulnerable to the perception of violation. And the heightened emotions make the perceived abandonment all the more distressing. 

Additionally, for reasons we shall see, the threshold where a disappointment becomes an attachment injury varies from person to person. In most cases, it is the accumulation of unresolved attachment injuries that then sours the relationship.

Each person’s attachment history 

To complicate things further, all humans come to every relationship with a history of attachments that influence the expectations for a current connection. It is difficult to have high hopes in the next relationship when one has an attachment history marked by many disappointing interactions. 

Furthermore, in those with a complicated attachment history, the anticipation of disappointment leaves very little room for errors by one’s partner. A poor attachment history increases one’s readiness to attribute ill intent to everyone one interacts with, especially those in authority.

Applying these concepts to the workplace relationship 

The same dynamics govern all our relationships. We form and end relationships similarly, whether personal or work-related. In both arenas, we start with high hopes and then, over time, learn what the relationship will truly become. Some people have developed the skills to navigate disappointments without ending the relationship; unfortunately, some have yet to develop these skills.

First stage: The honeymoon phase

Whether personal or work-related, every relationship begins with the euphoric phase, usually called the honeymoon phase. At this stage, everything is lovely. During this time I bring my best self, as does the other. In the employment setting, we are glad to have the job, excited to meet new people, and invigorated to figure out what we are doing on the job. This phase is everyone’s favorite.

Second stage: Hardship phase

The hardship phase is inevitable. In every context, some unpleasantness or disappointment emerges. Here begins the actual test. The employee asks, will the job be right for me and my needs? Is this job, and everything associated with it, enough for me to stay connected? As a whole, do I like this position and situation?

And on the employer side, there is a parallel assessment going on. Does the employee fit the position? Is the employee performing well? Are they getting along?

Sometimes the disappointments trigger our insecurities, and everything gets personalized. The employee may wonder whether every policy change is in reaction to them. Or perhaps a fleeting thought emerges that my bosses are out to make my life difficult, that they do not care about me and my trials.

It is hard to accept the decisions of those in authority, especially when their decisions are not pleasing. 

Workplace disappointments

It is here when dealing with disappointments that attachment injuries can play a prominent role. We are particularly vulnerable to an attachment injury when the employer fails to care for and support us as we believe we are entitled.

Before examining the next stage, let’s pause to explore what “reasonable expectations of an employer” might be and how organizations can aid employees in creating reasonable ones. 

What are the reasonable expectations of an employer?

Elsewhere, I have argued that the fundamental value underlying the employer’s attitude about employees should be love. However, figuring out exactly where the limits of love are is challenging. 

In the article, How to improve workplace culture: Love our people I talk about some methods owners use to reveal their motivations. Additionally, I discuss how our approach to implementing policy goes a long way to showing genuine support and caring.

Risky metaphors that organizations use

Many businesses use metaphors or catchphrases to describe who they are. For example, some owners and managers say this company is:

  • like a family
  • family-friendly
  • all about our employees
  • a Christian organization

Now I do not doubt that these statements have meaning to the managers and owners of an organization. But I also know that no organization is always any of those expressions. 

What I mean is this. No company is always like a family or family-friendly, or about its employees, or Christian. And if an employee believes the face value of those statements, they will be disappointed at times. And if that disappointment is significant enough, then attachment injuries may rupture the relationship.

Should we use aspirational language?

Despite the risk of being misunderstood, I believe leaders should use aspirational language when describing their organizations. However, we need to be clear that it is aspirational. 

What is more accurate is using narrative language that can be more nuanced and realistic.

“We are here to get the work done, but in a way that is thoughtful about our home life as well as our work life. And we are guided by these sets of values….” 

Admit that we will fall short at times. And when we fall short, we want to repair things as best we can.

Third stage: Either work it out or part ways

Both employers and employees make mistakes. Sometimes they hurt each other. Fortunately, not every injury ends the relationship. Some people have recovery scripts that they use to repair breaches in their relationships. 

Dr. John Gottman has developed a relationship repair protocol. Many online resources summarize his research findings. Here are a couple of articles by his disciples on repairing relationships:

The same principles operate in the workplace as well. The goal is the same, i.e., understanding the other and how we went wrong and then each owning our part in the breakdown. This process enables us to do better with each other.

When the attachment injuries are too much: Separation

Unfortunately, the accumulation of attachment injuries can have relationship-ending consequences. Typically, the employee will resign, but not always. Sometimes the employee will act out in ways that require the employer to fire them. Either way, the separation will have the dual qualities of pain and relief. We all feel the pain at the loss of intimacy and connection and the relief that it is over. 

And when that separation is necessary, then we want to do it well. I have written various discussions on these topics. See these, for example:

No matter how a separation occurred, I found the reverberations echoed within me for a while. I just tried to learn my lessons and move on while working on my scar tissue as best I could. For more on that subject, see: How to overcome employee betrayal: 5 steps to love resiliently.

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