by Maktuno Suit - Leadership Consultant & Psychotherapist
Christine dreads going into work everyday to face her manager, Paula. She feels as though Paula is ready to criticise her for any mistake that she makes and hence tries to avoid her due to the anxiety that she feels in her presence. Christine spends excessive amounts of time trying to make her work ‘perfect’ before presenting it to Paula - fearful of the critique she will receive. Christine feels like she is constantly undermined and that Paula is threatened when she performs well. Christine describes her as a ‘bad boss’ who makes her feel unsafe and she is looking for a new job.
Recently, the notion of creating psychologically safe cultures and teams in the workplace has become central to our understanding of an effective organisational environment.
Google’s recent workplace research ‘Project Aristotle’ studied team effectiveness and found that a key feature of effective teams was ‘psychological safety'. People in these teams feel comfortable to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another. Simon Sinek writes in his latest book ‘Leaders Eat Last’ about how the organisation is comparable to a family, and that the leader as 'parent' has the responsibility to create a 'circle of safety' in the culture of their organisation.
Many studies emphasise the importance of safety in the 'family culture' of the team and wider organisation but in this article we want to think specifically about psychological safety in one-to-one management relationships; or the 'parent-child' relationship. The well-known employee engagement survey the Gallup Report (2015) revealed that 50% of US workers had left jobs because of ‘bad bosses’. Unfortunately, most people can recall negative experiences of manager-employee relationships and the adverse impact this had on their happiness and performance in the workplace. Why does this critical workplace relationship, like that between Christine and Paula, often generate fear rather than safety?
In this article we will be exploring management relationships through the lens and language of John Bowlby's ‘attachment theory’. We will be thinking about how 'bad bosses' can become emotionally 'safe spaces’; within which people feel safe enough to take risks, make mistakes and fulfil their full potential.
'Attachment' is a psychological model discovered in the 1960s by psychologist John Bowlby that describes how human beings seek proximity to others for safety and emotional regulation. During times of uncertainty, or fear we seek proximity to ‘attachment figures’ - who attune themselves to how we are feeling and help us to regulate our emotions. These people are like ‘safe spaces’ (which Bowlby termed 'secure bases') from which we can explore the world around us, and then return to in difficult times. When we have relationships that are ‘safe spaces’ we feel free to take risks in the world around us and grow, confident that we will receive care if we find ourselves in a difficult situation.
In our formative years, the reliability and responsiveness of these relationships with attachment figures develops a personal pattern of relating to caregivers. Alongside other intervening experiences in our lives we begin to develop an adulthood ‘attachment style’ - a typical pattern of relating to an ‘attachment figure’. If our experiences have generally been caring, non-abusive and consistent then we develop a healthy, ‘secure’ way of relating to caregivers. We expect care and responsiveness in our future 'attachment relationships'. If not, our style becomes ‘insecure’; we develop either an ‘anxious’ style (clingy) or we develop an ‘avoidant’ style (emotionally disengaged) that fundamentally effect our ability to relate to others in dependent relationships. As children our main attachment figures are our parents, and as adults these attachment relationships transition to those with our partners and our friendship groups. Crucially, work relationships, particularly those with our managers can become likened to 'attachment relationships'. We spend forty hours of our week in the workplace, our immediate line manager is often our first source of support to mediate the challenges of the workplace and sets the tone in terms of how safe we feel; how much we are able to take risks; and our potential to grow and develop as employees.
The dependence and hierarchical power dynamic within line management relationships often activates employees' ‘attachment behaviours. Leaders, by virtue of their position, can be ‘safe places’ in the workplace that allow us to perform our roles, express ourselves and grow professionally. We have identified six questions for leaders to reflect on and think about how they can optimise the psychological safety in their management relationships.
1. Are you emotionally available?
Leaders need to be comfortable with the idea that their employees' emotions are fundamentally important to them performing well in their roles. Leaders need to understand that consciously or unconsciously people will relate to management relationships on an emotional level. Good bosses understand that their relationships can appropriately become 'safe spaces' for people to process and manage the challenges of their role. Sometimes these challenges will focus directly on work tasks, and other times they will focus on emotional issues that are affecting work. Being a 'safe space' involves listening and provide guidance and support. It lets your people know that you expect a certain level of performance because you care about them personally and about the organization.
2. Are you reliable and consistent?
Leaders need to show reliability and consistency to make people feel safe - who need to know where their leader is and be confident that they s/he will respond reliably when approached. Leaders' lack of consistency undermines their position, and this is often through failing to accomplish simple procedural tasks, such as booking in consistent supervisions with their line reports. Within increasingly flexible modern workplaces, many leaders can be evasive and unpredictable - which leaves people feeling disorientated and managing their emotions on their own. Leaders can fail to recognise that providing a consistent, ongoing supportive space can have powerful symbolic value when it is internalised by the employee. The idea of a psychologically safe management relationship that they can predictably access in the future, will allow them to feel emotionally contained in the here-and-now. As a leader do you need to become more consistent?
3. Are you emotionally attuned to people?
Leaders need to adopt an adaptable leadership style that is appropriate to and attuned to people’s varying needs for safety. Rather than adopting a rigid approach to leading people, it is important to reflect on a person’s needs; their level of professional development and their current personal/professional difficulties. It’s important to sense how your line reports are feeling. Those who are ‘securely’ attached will be easier to anticipate and respond to. But those who 'insecurely' attached will appear distant and disengaged. Pay attention to how your people respond to distress. Do they shut down? Do they become really anxious, clingy, and demanding? What do they need from you as the leader when there is uncertainty or they are distressed? Be aware of people and their different ways of dealing with distress.
4. Are you visible as a leader?
Attachment studies indicate that infants often find safety through a simple look or glance towards an attachment figure - from which they derive comfort or safety. This is a way of relating that we carry into adulthood. At times people are anxious to know that leaders are nearby, and a leader’s visibility can be incredibly powerful. Have you underestimated the power of presence and simply being around the people that you lead? If employees work remotely or in a different office, are there simple ways to make yourself more visible, whether that be with regular phone calls, emails. If the only time that you relate is at appraisals or formal management then it can undermine the psychological safety of the relationship. As a leader do you need to make yourself more visible?
5. Are you supported as a leader?
Many leaders struggle to provide people with safety due to their own lack of wellbeing and stability. It is important for leaders maintain their own ‘secure bases’ where they too can feel safe. This enables them to provide support to others from an overflow of emotional security and provision. As a leader, do you have a trusted colleague or coach that you can turn to for emotional support? Do you need to start practicing a greater level of self-care?