Under stress, what kind of metal would you be? And how might childhood attachment patterns help you know?

A photo by Ellen Feldman that shows a real woman on the left contorting against a pain and on the right a picture of a woman with three sets of arms — one fisted, one to their side, one with hands down with palms showing forward
Flexibly rigid © Ellen Feldman

Engineers use the stress-strain curve to assess how a type of material reacts under stress before deploying it. Most material strength graphs show that materials are elastic up to a point after which deformation occurs — potentially making it impossible to return to the prior state even if stress is lifted. If stress continues, failure ensues.

We have no direct equivalents when we hire and manage people. We often learn how we and others react under pressure when it is too late.

Yet much as metals have distinct stress-strain curves depending on their properties, humans have varying qualities. Some intrinsic; others products of lived experiences and influences — some very early in our lives. The first post in this series suggested how the Stress-Strain Curve can help up visualize the impact of stress on performance.

Below we explore how understanding attachment theory can help us understand how individuals might react when stressed — put another way, how early childhood influences our plasticity and brittleness.

We might be like titanium: we endure, resist external toxins/corrosion, tolerate temperature extremes, and maintain our resilience. We could be like stainless steel — take a lot of pressure, don’t show blemishes but then suddenly break. When we are more like copper we are versatile, can be stretched thin but are not very strong, and show dents easily.

The analogies to metals are imperfect but helped us visualize how attachments and stress relate, and take a different look at ourselves and others to better co-exist at work. We also provide resources for further investigation and reflection below.

What is attachment theory?

One of the pillars of modern psychology, attachment has received surprisingly little attention in management literature, let alone managerial training. This research was first developed in the 1950’s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Like many theories, attachment theory has been criticized and debated among psychologists.

The origins of the theory are Anglo-Saxon (Bowlby was British, Ainsworth was Canadian-American) but there is now general consensus that the attachment behavioral system is applicable to and present in all humans (Van IJzendoorn & Sagi-Schwartz, 2008). [1]

It was a revolutionary theory in the days when psychologists thought that feeding and clothing a child was enough for healthy development. Other researchers have expanded our understanding of attachment and its impact over the past six decades. Recent neuroscientific discoveries and improved understanding of trauma are providing ongoing insights into the topic.

When your early needs are met — consistently — you will develop a secure attachment and basic trust in life because you know, deep down, that

· You are safe

· You are heard

· You are valuable

In addition to the secure attachment styles, there are insecure styles: anxious-preoccupied, avoidant-dismissive, and avoidant-fearful. Deprived of secure attachment, brains develop differently. Stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline are more present. We may grow to believe, for example, that life is hard, we must make ourselves heard, and prove our value somehow.

The styles reflect high to low attachment anxiety vs high to low attachment avoidance. In psychology, avoidance is “the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, environments, individuals, or things because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequence of such an encounter or (b) anxious or painful feelings associated with them.”

So in summary, secure individuals (about 60% of the population) have a positive view of themselves and others; the exact opposite is true in the fearful attachment style— those individuals tend to have a negative image of the self and others. Finally, preoccupied individuals tend to be negative about themselves but have a positive view of others. In the opposite corner of the matrix are those with dismissive attachment: they think highly of themselves but negatively of others (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991; Griffin and Bartholomew, 1994).

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-mysteries-love/201503/how-change-your-attachment-style, accessed May 2022.

Our childhoods and the nature of the parenting and oversight that we received, and how they made us feel, accompany us our entire lives. Along with our genetics, early attachment patterns are a key influence on how we view ourselves, others, and the world. They drive our confidence and anxiety levels, our need for connection and reassurance, and our ability to self-soothe and handle change. These patterns are subconscious for the most part and can provide us with coping mechanisms or keep us in repetitive dysfunctional patterns.

Any form of adjustment requires increased self-awareness, which comes when we dare to take an honest look at ourselves. Attachment patterns are only one, albeit a very important and often overlooked piece of the puzzle in increasing our self-awareness.

What does it have to do with stress at work?

Our attachment style fundamentally impacts our ability to manage ourselves and others. This includes our bosses, colleagues, and staff. It is certainly not the only factor influencing how we cope with our environment(s) and the conditions in which we find ourselves. Still, it can play a significant role in how we operate, particularly if we find ourselves compelled to act in what we realize might be self-defeating ways.

Finally, attachment styles often manifest in certain situations. In one job or with a particular person or project, we may exhibit anxious or fearful tendencies, and in another, we may not. But we tend to have a dominant style to which we resort, especially in times of stress, and each style has strengths.

Secure attachment style / Titanium

People with secure attachment are like titanium: resistant and unshakeable even when the going gets tough. They have a strong sense of self, exhibit higher levels of engagement, can express themselves well, and support an organization’s goals and outcomes. They make dependable and often popular managers and employees because they tend to be emotionally intelligent, have a positive view of life, and have lasting relationships or close associations. They can take things as they come and apply good management practices, delegate, and trust.

How they might be under stress: These individuals might feel more at ease coming forward to request support. They expect that doing so will not cause others to think less of them. They are not immune to stress but know how to draw boundaries and tackle issues confidently.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment style / Copper

These individuals are more like copper —a metal that is ductile (able to be deformed without losing toughness), malleable, and an excellent conductor of energy. It is versatile and able to blend with a whole range of other metals but relatively weak. Finally, it corrodes very easily. This oxidation is protective, not destructive (like rust on steel). This patina or verdigris blocks oxygen from further affecting the copper. On steel, rust will literally eventually degrade the metal to dust.

An anxious-preoccupied brain is very flexible but also quick to jump to negative conclusions and be self-critical, seeking approval and validation from others. Fears of rejection or upsetting others drive these individuals. Their work performance might be hampered by relationship issues at home and work. Their need to adjust to others’ needs and expectations can take a toll on their mental and physical well-being.

How they might be under stress: These individuals might come forward more often than necessary — as a result, a manager might start to dismiss cries for help and support. They may have a hard time letting go of tasks and responsibilities. Always making sure that everything is ok is common to them as they tend to catastrophize and see small things as big threats.

Avoidant-dismissive attachment style / Steel

Individuals who are like stainless steel are fit for tough environments, can endure a lot of stress, and do not break easily. However, if they break, the damage can be difficult to repair.

These individuals can put a lot of effort into work and perform best as specialists rather than people managers. They will tend to work long hours and are prone to workaholism. Due to this, they might occur to others as loners who distrust people and relationships — and hence will tend to micro-manage and have a hard time delegating and trusting that others can do a task as well as they can.

How they might be under stress: These individuals can become self-righteous, very demanding, and harsh with team members, leading to mistrust and conflict. Because they are emotionally removed, they will take a while to show any strain or ask for help. This lack of apparent emotion can cover up significant struggles, however.

Avoidant-fearful attachment style / Alloys

Individuals who are like copper mixed with stainless steel tend to change between the two depending on the situation and the persons around them.

This attachment style is characterized by strong fear, mistrust, and inner conflict. Individuals with this style have a strong desire for connection but build walls to protect themselves and may have negative self-image and self-worth coupled with deep-rooted shame and feelings of unworthiness. They often have a highly developed sense of justice and often question people’s and organizations’ motives.

How they might be under stress: They might not come forward out of paralyzing fear and due to their inner conflict may seem erratic and irrational to others. But this behavior masks something much deeper. Such a person might spend most of their time and energy being overwhelmed and feel powerless to change things or do anything about their fears. They may try to get away and escape, both literarily and figuratively.

Opening the door for conversation

Door of a French metro with a handle
A way in © Ellen Feldman

As is the case of the old Paris Metro doors, opening up is not always obvious.

We understand that this post and the entire conversation around mental health at work exposes private topics in a way we have never done before. Business schools teach managers with case studies that often present decision-makers as rational beings making well-informed decisions, orchestrating rational humans. This did not equip generations of leaders with an understanding of themselves and others on an emotional level.

We are now talking more about emotional health at work, which requires education for everyone and begs the question of how far managers and organizations should go in delving into someone’s background, especially if the individuals themselves are not aware of their patterns.

So the process needs to start with self–reflection on what managers bring to mental health conversation and here, too, attachment theory might help us. The extent to which many managers show support based on their attachment styles differs widely, too. Insecure attachment significantly affects leadership. Managers with insecure-avoidant attachment centralize decision-making, micromanage employees, and delegate less than securely attached ones. Insecure leaders tend to seek power for their own purposes.

Finally, assistance begins with opening channels of honest and open communication — and not by making assumptions or labeling people — not others, and not ourselves. The best way to do that is to ask those around us at work, perhaps even at the recruiting stage, about what they feel they might need — and why — to withstand and even thrive under stressful conditions.


Thank you for reading. This article was written by the Human Sustainability Inside Out team. We are grateful to Mariana Ferrari for her input.


The Origins of Attachment Theory — a paper about John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and their work.

What is Attachment Theory? from About Psychology website

Getting attached: Parental attachment and child development — blog from Brookings Institution, April 2015

The Importance of Early Childhood and Relationships — A 2013 Chicago’s Idea Talk — Dr. Bruce Perry (video)

https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1103/do-we-still-need-attachment-theoryPsychotherapy Networker Magazine.

[1] “Unlike many social psychological theories that are limited by the Western cultural context in which they were developed, attachment theory is an exception in that it has been examined across cultures. However, existing cross-cultural research on attachment is limited in scope: there is little to no research on how attachment distributions vary based on ethnicity and religion, and it remains unclear which aspects of culture influence attachment outcomes.” See Agishtein, P., & Brumbaugh, C. (2013). Cultural variation in adult attachment: The impact of ethnicity, collectivism, and country of origin. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 7(4), 384–405. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0099181. In spite of this general conclusion, there is still a growing body of work devoted to cross-cultural aspects of attachment. Source: https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2014-01529-013.html, accessed April 2022.



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.