Holding Your Organisation Together In A Crisis – Why Attachment is Profoundly Important


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In a climate where workplaces are under extraordinary pressure to introduce radical changes as rapidly as possible, it is essential for leaders to have a clear understanding of human psychology. They need this knowledge to support their staff in times of great stress, and to mobilise people to adapt effectively to the required changes.

The two main ways in which adults anchor themselves in life are through the structure of work and through loving relationships. So a threat to people’s job security causes a deep disturbance in their core sense of stability – it triggers their survival instincts and hampers their capacity to function effectively. This disturbance will be compounded if they don’t feel secure in their personal relationships.
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Many of the people problems that leaders grapple with in the world of work can be solved by adapting the knowledge available from the world of psychology – but I am constantly surprised that the frameworks that are commonplace to psychotherapists and child development experts don’t seem to be utilised in the workplace.

Of course (despite the dire stories we hear about some organisations!)  staff are not children, and the workplace is not a therapeutic community – staff are employed to fulfil contractual responsibilities, and they are expected to be emotionally robust enough to handle the demands of work.  But we know that parent-child patterns of behaviour play themselves out in the relationships between leaders and their staff – especially when people are stressed and the organisation is under fire.

So here are 3 frameworks that have great significance for holding organisations together in times of radical change: mentalization, containment and attachment.
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1. Mentalization

Mentalization is the capacity:

* To know your own feelings, to interpret those feelings, and to modulate them – to decide whether you wish to act on them, express them, or contain them.

* To reflect on other people’s behaviours, and to be attuned to what their possible underlying thoughts, emotions and intentions might be.

* To reflect on what dynamics might be taking place between yourself and other individuals.
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Mentalization enables us to join up the workings of our own inner worlds with our experiences in the external world: to manage our behaviour and regulate our emotional responses in stressful situations; to establish stable relationships; and to pursue personal goals.

Many staff can mentalize during ordinary work pressures, but the unrelenting rate of change at the moment demands that we have to be able to keep mentalizing when under fire – and have to be robust under pressures that would once have sent us into a melt-down.  eg. to carry out high level negotiation with peers over access to diminishing resources; to engage in complex strategic partnerships with external agencies.
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2. Containment

Our ability to mentalize develops through a sense of containment that we experience as infants from our primary caregiver (usually our mother). It’s that sensation of being emotionally and physically held by a robust individual who affirms our feelings of pleasure, helps us to interpret our bad feelings when they overwhelm us, and soothes away our distress. As we develop emotionally we internalise our own sense of that containment, and develop that capacity to recognise triggers for stress, realise that negative feelings will pass, establish coping strategies, and find safe ways to let off steam. Staff need to feel this same sense of containment in order to cope with major events like redundancies and mergers.
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3. Attachment

In order for adults to be able to feel contained and mentalize effectively, we need a secure sense of ourselves as individuals. We aren’t born with this sense. Instead the foundations of our social and emotional development are established in infancy though our attachment relationship with our primary caregiver. The core sense of who we are emerges out of this sense of connection with another human being – and the security of knowing that we are borne in mind by our adult caregiver.

Attachment theory suggests that this developmental experience in early childhood establishes in us a core internal working model of relationships that: shapes our expectations and choices of sexual and domestic partners; and defines our patterns of behaviour with our lifelong friends, with leaders, peers, and followers, and with the older people or children who are dependent on us.

If a child’s primary caregiver is unable to provide a separate but secure attachment bond, that child can develop a damaged internal working model that it carries into adulthood. It is thought that 65% of adults have secure attachment patterns, but 35% have insecure patterns: classified as either preoccupied,  dismissive, or fearful – where they struggle to hold their personal boundaries.
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What This Means For Organisations

This has profound implications for leadership in the workplace. While people with exceptionally insecure attachment patterns are unlikely to be in employment, there is still a significant proportion of people in the workplace who have a great contribution to make to the organisation, but who also have insecure attachment patterns. They may struggle with their sense of self-worth, or mistrust other people, and this could sabotage their ability to hold their role boundaries at work.

Even for the 65% of individuals who do have secure attachment patterns, the current turbulent climate of organisational change and job-losses can  severely test of their sense of containment too. So leaders need to make the most of their human capital by modelling secure, containing attachment behaviour with their staff.

Attachment theory also explains why employee engagement is so crucial to organisational success. The most robust staff can feel devastated when they aren’t borne in mind by their leaders – when decisions are taken by a faceless bureaucracy, when major changes are introduced without consultation, or when leaders refuse to acknowledge the personal impact of their decisions on their staff.
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How To Handle Staff Reactions To Change
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Here is an illustration of employees’ likely responses to change based on different attachment patterns.

The two diagrams in this blog have been adapted from here. NB They are NOT diagnostic tools! They illustrate positions that many of us slip into when pressured, rather than hard categories by which to pigeonhole individuals. Also, you need to be mindful of cultural differences between your staff because some countries respond differently to these positions.)

When people are in a secure attachment position they might respond initially with: “This is tough, I’m hacked off with our CEO and furious at the government’s cuts! How will our clients cope??” But a few weeks later they might be saying, “it’s the kick up the butt that I’ve been waiting for! I’m going to apply for that leadership position now!”. They will need you to acknowledge that the change is painful and demanding, then help them to recognise their inner resourcefulness. They need practical support to identify other resources, and to plan for the changes.

Those who adopt a preoccupied position at the time will experience change as a personal devastation: “This is the end of my career. My whole life is a mess! There’s nobody to support me.” They require: an opportunity to rebuild their confidence and identify their skills, talents and sources of support; and a sense of you as a robust leader who isn’t repelled by their neurosis or drawn into their combative world.

Those in a dismissive position will be fiercely independent, keep a stiff-upper-lip, and refuse to acknowledge the impact of any changes. They will flatly deny any feelings, but their hostility may be internalised and manifest itself in health problems, or may be projected elsewhere – leading a meltdown over a seemingly irrelevant matter. Again, they need you to be robust if they erupt emotionally, and will benefit from your clear mentalization. (“I feel really disappointed about having to introduce these cuts. I know these changes are likely to cause a great deal of frustration for many of you…”)

Staff in a fearful position will be anticipating trouble and be primed for a fight. They are likely to experience change as a personal attack, and may want to retaliate – through formal grievance or underhand sabotage. The same principles apply: mentalize; work with them on identifying their strengths and options; and be robust despite the intimidation. Where someone is seriously out of order, set limits and be clear about sanctions. People exhibiting fearful attachment positions can be extremely challenging, so be sure to get professional support.
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Repairing Insecure Leadership Patterns
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What about insecure patterns of attachment when it comes to leadership?

Leaders who adopt preoccupied positions feel brittle and find it difficult to stay in role or hold their authority. They will be inconsistently combative, attentive and neglectful, and only responsive to those who really demand attention.  (Staff: “What do we have to do to get noticed round here?!”) They may interpret staff hostility to difficult organisational changes as a personal rejection, and may find constructive criticism too overwhelming to take on board. Their mentalization task is to be more personally robust and to hold their role boundaries.

Leaders who take up dismissive positions are likely to direct change in a top-down, hard, impersonal manner. They may be oblivious to the upset and shock in their employees, and discourage any expressions of emotion. They may have unrealistic expectations of staff resilience – pushing them to be independent. Their mentalization task is to be more compassionate and more attuned to their own feelings.

Leaders who adopt fearful positions will be bullish and authoritarian, and these leaders may use threats to get their way. Their approach may be suspicious, intrusive, and underhand. Their mentalization task is to moderate their fear of attack, and to be more generous about other people’s apparent failings. (This is a difficult approach to change!)
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Modelling Secure Leadership

The key learning from attachment theory, is that leaders need to model a healthy separate-but-secure attachment with their staff, in order for their staff to feel securely attached and contained within their organisations.

Staff may become anxious about a leader’s prolonged absence, breakdowns in communication, emotional unavailability, or signs of rejection. So leaders have to come to work in a robust state. They need to be physically and emotionally grounded in their organisations. They need: to allow staff influence and choice as far as possible; to be sociable, but not trying to be everyone’s friend; to be resilient, kind and accommodating if staff kick off, but firm about boundaries and sanctions if individuals go into complete meltdown.

Leaders have to contain any of their own difficult emotions that may be triggered by their roles – whether these are feelings of brittleness and vulnerability, or feelings of hostility and exasperation at other people’s “neediness”. These need to be discharged separately and safely through executive coaching, external peer support, or therapy.

At a time when your leadership instincts are telling you to be ultra-rational, to focus on the tough stuff, and to shut yourself away to hatch an emergency plan… your staff need you to do the exact opposite! In this period of great uncertainty staff need to know that their leader bears each individual in mind – being thoughtful and considerate about the impact of changes on each person, whilst also safeguarding the organisation as a whole.

That means mentalizing aloud to bring out the difficult feelings that are around for their staff – putting these on the table in an appropriate way so that they can be made safer, even if your staff may be letting you off the hook and avoiding the feelings themselves.

All of these components sit alongside the well-known technical ingredients that we usually associate with change leadership: being clear about what factors are certain and what has to change; sticking to timetables and commitments; and having a well-articulated change strategy. These practical elements provide essential psychological containment for people too.
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Mentalization Capital
When I coach leaders to mentalize, and encourage them to try out a more secure, containing style of leadership, they are sometimes concerned that they may be opening up a pandora’s box of trouble.  So one of the rewards of my work is to get to facilitate organisational events where I see leaders testing this out and taking up their authority in a positive way. It’s striking to notice the positive impact: staff definitely become more engaged and think together more coherently. The challenge for leaders is to keep applying these frameworks back in the workplace when the heat has been turned up to full blast.

In our tight funding environment, I believe that having this “mentalization capital” is a competitive advantage for civil society organisations – because it draws teams back into a space where they are psychologically available for the essential work that has to be done.
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For in-depth reading see Professor Peter Fonagy – a leading advocate of mentalization in clinical treatment.
Grateful thanks to Anne McKay, Clinical Psychologist, for her help with this paper.
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