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From a strategic leadership standpoint, today’s world can often be characterized as volatile,uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (aka, VUCA). In a rapid space of time, globalization and technologyare also dramatically altering the vast majority of industries we rely on. Organizations vying to competein this precarious and ever-changing environment would be remiss to assume they can rely on 20th centuryleadership models for organizational design, human resource, and professional development processes.Instead, heads of organizations could greatly benefit from shaping and developing their culture to includeleadership initiatives aimed at ensuring that stable, secure, collaborative and, most importantly, authenticrelationships exist between managers and team members.
Challenging the paradigm that leaders must project high levels of steely confidence, strength andtoughness at all costs, research and experience actually show that when humans, and leaders alike, areauthentic and transparent in their communications about how they genuinely feel, and remain consistentlyavailable to those around them, that virtually unbreakable bonds of trust can develop through thevulnerability and openness shared. As a result, human attachment theory is now being seriouslyconsidered for its application to the workplace, since our most basic of needs has always been for safe andreliable connection to another.
Emotional responsiveness, availability and engagement are already known to be critical to thequality of the personal relationships that exist in our lives. In psychological terms, a regular lapse in anyof these will eventually result in what is deemed an insecure attachment that, by default, will ultimatelycreate unproductive human coping responses aimed at “solving” the insecurity and lack of safety onefeels. The hardwired panic which ensues is then actually quite predictable, since all mammals recognizethat their survival and safety rely on their belonging and importance to a group and its hierarchy. Whenthe human brain detects a lack of responsiveness, by another (which, by default, includes a detached peeror an aloof, distracted, or inaccessible organizational leader), and when this pattern is maintained over anextended period of time, emotional dysregulation will, without fail, follow. At this stage, fear and anxietywill quickly set in for any employee or team member who, while already contending with VUCA,simultaneously feels isolated or disconnected from a group or its leader. As a means of coping with a lackof connection during perceived threat, unhelpful human behavioral response patterns will mobilize. In theworkplace, these fight, flight or freeze reactions will often manifest as apathy, aggression, withdrawal, or,at their worst, sabotage of an organization’s mission. Additionally unhelpful to the workplace are thenumerous emotional responses that can ensue. High levels of frustration, irritation, distrust and downrightdespair felt by team members can ripple across an organization and spread, not unlike a fast-replicatingdisease. Unfortunately, for many organizations these overt and covert emotional responses will often goundetected, and thus, remain an invisible enemy working against its identified goals at the very time increasing levels of engagement, energy and creativity are required to remain competitive and relevant.
Leadership in the 21st century will greatly benefit from drawing upon our growing understandingof attachment theory, considering it is humans with emotions that are our greatest organizational asset.Progressive leaders will understand the need for the creation of warm, authentic and reliable bonds withinand between management and staff that include a “felt” sense of support, accessibility, engagement andresponsiveness. Those who succeed will remain keenly aware that while processes are important, it isemotion that drives behavior in organizations, both positive and negative. Any aloof avoidance ordisengagement detected among the ranks, the kind that can easily develop from the unrelenting pressureand workloads managers and employees commonly face, is immediately addressed by the 21st centuryleader. In its place, he or she instead regularly models bonding conversations and interactions that includeboth emotional and physical availability, with the goal of creating trusting and secure attachments withinthe settings they oversee. Similar to securely attached members of a marriage or couple, challenges arethen more effectively managed and the agility and flexibility required to adapt to changing circumstancesis achieved. Whether relationships are personal or professional in nature, all humans must remainconfident that, in the face of distress, they are solidly bonded to those they rely upon.
The ever changing and often threatening VUCA backdrop should not be underestimated, given itsability to create a sort of “collective group anxiety” that can propel an organization’s members intounhealthy and perpetual states of fight, flight or freeze survival patterns. Studies indicate that the mostsuccessful teams are those who are emotionally connected, and this makes perfect sense when the conceptof “safety in numbers” is considered, which is essentially the need for humans to know that, withouthesitation, they are never, ever, alone while in distress. Those at the top of organizations who demonstratesecure, authentic leadership that includes human vulnerability aimed at connection are essentially creatingsafe havens where colleagues and teams can thrive. The higher levels of mutual trust and respect thatfollow, directly lead to reductions in turnover, enhanced organizational commitment and improvedemployee attitudes which benefit organizations and employees alike.
Evelyn Booth, M.A., earned her degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University and is alicensed Marriage & Family Therapist with specialization in the area of attachment theory and its impacton relationships.
Jonathan Silk, M.B.A, M.A is a Ph.D. student in the Global Leadership and Change program. Hisresearch interests are Leader and Team attachment styles and Team Psychological Safety. He is an ArmyVeteran, with combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a faculty member at the UnitedStates Military Academy member at West Point, NY.
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