Psychology: Attachment Styles and Employee Performance

Introduction

In recent years, researchers and employers have both shown increased interest in exploring contributing factors that shape employees’ attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. It is now argued that the reasons for how employees choose to engage or disengage in workplace activities may be traced all the way back to their childhood experiences. The authors of the article under examination, Vîrgă, Schaufeli, Taris, van Beek, and Sulea (2019), used the attachment theory to explain job performance and motivation. The said theory states that depending on the environment that a person was born into, his or her proximity-seeking scenarios may vary.

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Typically, psychologists single out two unhealthy types of attachment: anxious and avoidant. Attachment anxiety drives individuals to doubt their connection to other people or, in the case of the present article, an organization. Those people are over immersed and committed to a fault as they often feel that the bonds that they have established are fragile and require ongoing maintenance. Attachment avoidance, on the other hand, makes people detached from their formal and informal commitments. They prefer not to care and be left out of the narrative at the slightest inconvenience. In their study, Vîrgă et al. (2019) focused on the potential relationship between attachment style and the likelihood of burnout. The author’s defined workplace burnout as an employee’s pronounced exhaustion and cynicism. The working hypothesis for the study was that both unhealthy attachment styles would correlate strongly with experiencing burnout.

Evidence in Support of Hypothesis

Virgă et al. (2019) theorized that insecure attachment styles were positively associated with burnout operationalized as exhaustion and cynicism. However, the data analysis has shown that the hypothesis was only partly true. Indeed, the anxious attachment style was found to be positively related to burnout (b ¼.33, p <.001 for the Dutch sample and b ¼.30, p <.001 for the Romanian sample). At the same time, avoidants were not likely to have burnout (b ¼.04, p >.05 for the Dutch sample and b ¼.03, p >.05 for the Romanian sample) – that part of the hypothesis was not supported. Virgă et al. (2019) also found a positive correlation between burnout and poor job performance for both samples (b ¼.52, p <.001). Lastly, the mediating role of burnout between anxiously attached employees and poor performance was confirmed.

Background Information

Vîrgă et al. were not the first to examine the impact of attachment styles on job performance and work-related stress. In a recent study, Gilin Oore, Leiter, and LeBlanc (2015) focused on individual and organizational factors shaping the response to workplace conflicts. Among individual factors, the researchers singled out cognitive flexibility, an appropriate balance of self vs. other focus, emotional regulation, and fit of the person to the conflict situation. Akin to Vîrgă et al. (2019), Gillin Oore et al. (2015) used the attachment theory; however, in their case, it concerned the relationships between a person and his or her colleagues.

They stated that attachment anxiety makes individuals constantly seek reassurance and support in others. Interestingly enough, even though anxious employees are afraid of losing their jobs, they often instigate conflicts and uncivil workplace exchanges. Avoidant behavior, on the other hand, is not much healthier than its anxious counterpart. Employees with the avoiding type of attachment refuse to engage in conflicts, therefore, missing an opportunity to open a dialogue and make changes. Gillin Oore et al. (2015) argue that a person’s attachment style is not definite: workplace training can help him or her chooses better strategies and feel more secure.

Mahfooz, Arshad, Nisar, Ikram, and Azeem (2017) studied the reasons for workplace burnout, namely, incivility and ostracism. The researchers defined incivility as low-intensity negative behaviors in the workplace. The hostility might not be exactly explicit, but this type of interaction exhaust everyone involved. Ostracism, on the other hand, is a procedure of expelling a person from work processes and interactions, which was also found to be one of the reasons for burnout and turnover.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The main strength of the present study is a comprehensive explanation of the mediating role of burnout in workplace performance. The researchers succeeded in finding a consistent relationship between attachment styles and the likelihood of burnout, therefore, confirming the working hypothesis. The research lays a foundation for future studies on the topic and provides practical implications for employers and employees. For all the advantages, Vîrgă et al. (2019) acknowledge a few weaknesses that their study possesses. First, due to the convenience sampling method, the findings might not be exactly inferential. Second, the study analyzed self-reported data the validity and objectivity of which raises reasonable doubts.

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Ethical Considerations

As Vîrgă et al. (2019) et al. stated, the study was conducted in accordance with the ethical guidelines provided by the American Psychological Association and the ethical review board. In compliance with the said guidelines, the researchers developed standardized self-report surveys in which respondents were neither deceived nor involved in an unwanted intervention. The first page of the questionnaire contained comprehensive information regarding the ethical aspects (anonymity and confidentiality) of the study.

Methodology

In their study, Vîrgă et al. (2019) employed a cross-sectional quantitative study design. Through convenience sampling, the Dutch researchers recruited 201 Dutch employees working in different sectors, most of them in information communication technologies (ICT) (26.9%), education (19.4%), and healthcare (15.9%). For the Romanian sample, 178 respondents were picked from the social and economic science college students, two-thirds of whom worked a full-time job while the rest was employed part-time. The independent variable, participants’ attachment style was measured using two subscales: avoidance (six statements for evaluation of Likert scale with one being “strongly disagree” and 7 “strongly agree”) and anxiety (three items). Similarly, the first dependent variable, burnout, was assessed with two scales: emotional exhaustion (e.g., “I feel emotionally drained from my work”; 5 items) and cynicism (e.g., “I have become more cynical about whether my work contributes anything”; 4 items). Lastly, the second dependent variable, job performance, was defined with a single-item questionnaire.

Further Research

A future study could replicate the present study but employs slightly different methods to make it more robust. Researchers could focus on studying the relationship between attachment styles and job performance further. However, in the future, it would be more reasonable to use more formal methods for the evaluation of workplace efficiency. One strategy would be to ask supervisors to assess the employees; another feasible idea is to develop tests, which would remove the human factor and subjectivity. In this case, the independent variable (attachment style) would be self-reported while the dependent variable (performance) would be defined objectively.

Relation to Real-World Problems

The focus and findings of the study relate directly to real-world problems. Recent decades have been marked by increased competition in the workplace. At the same time, as the statistics have shown, depression rates and the rates of other mental disorders have surged. If gone unnoticed, an unhealthy work environment and job dissatisfaction may hurt employees’ performance, account for high turnover rates, and aggravate employees’ mental issues. Therefore, there is a need to study the psychological aspect of work and define measures that would help to avoid burnout.

My Own Position

I find that Vîrgă et al. (2019) put forward a feasible hypothesis regarding the relationship between attachment styles, burnout rates, and job performance. However, to me, it seems that the findings can be misinterpreted. Some employers who might stumble upon this study may conclude that individual factors (attachment styles, self vs. others juxtaposition, and other phenomena) are the end-all-be-all of workplace efficiency. By doing that, they would ignore external factors such as the work environment and its attributes. Besides, I suppose that while childhood experiences and proximity-seeking scenarios are important to study, they are not all that there is to workplace psychology. Individuals should not dwell too much on the past: it may be more effective to live in the now and solve relevant conflicts.

Implications

The study by Vîrgă et al. (2019) implies that employees’ workplace unhealthy behaviors can and should be subject to correction. Overall, the findings point out that first and foremost, secure attachment is well-balanced. Anxious and avoidant styles of attachment are on the opposite sides of the spectrum, and each of them presents a unique set of struggles. Attachment anxiety makes people dependent on external validation while avoidants are typically independent to a fault and may ignore feedback and criticism. For employers, it means that good workplace training should try to integrate the best features of each style. A series of therapeutic sessions can help anxious employers to find the source of strength within themselves. At the same time, avoidants can break down the barriers preventing them from trusting others and learn how to collaborate. These measures may account for a decrease in burnout rates in the workplace.

References

Gilin Oore, D., Leiter, M. P., & LeBlanc, D. E. (2015). Individual and organizational factors promoting successful responses to workplace conflict. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 56(3), 301.

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Mahfooz, Z., Arshad, A., Nisar, Q. A., Ikram, M., & Azeem, M. (2017). Does workplace incivility & workplace ostracism influence the employees’ turnover intentions? Mediating role of burnout and job stress & moderating role of psychological capital. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 7(8), 398-413.

Vîrgă, D., Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., van Beek, I., & Sulea, C. (2019). Attachment styles and employee performance: The mediating role of burnout. The Journal of psychology, 153(4), 383-401.

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