Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Expressing your proactive potential depends on attachment style

Employees who engage in proactive behaviours tend to be an asset to the workplace; they're less phased by obstacles, more likely to pursue new opportunities, and take more efforts to master their environment. While organisations have a role in cultivating proactivity, so do our personal traits. However, a recent paper by Chia-huei Wu and Sharon Parker suggests that this influence itself depends upon our 'attachment style', a common term in therapeutic fields and finding wider application elsewhere. Essentially, unleashing our proactive potential depends on how we relate to those around us.

In this four-month study, 58 Taiwanese undergraduate students recorded their volume of proactive behaviours on a monthly basis, together with how curious and future oriented they had felt that month, and made a 'core-self evaluation' (CSE) of how able and capable they saw themselves during that time. All three factors have been demonstrated to influence proactive behaviours. At the start of the study, each participant also completed an attachment questionnaire and a measure of proactive personality, this to control for large effects that might swamp all other factors.

Wu and Parker were specifically interested in within-subject variations, such as whether an individual acts more proactively during months when their curiosity was aroused, CSE high, or future orientation more pronounced. Analysis revealed the presence of each of these influences, but the CSE and future orientation effects were mediated by participant's attachment style, specifically a form of attachment called relationship anxiety involving a fear of being unloved and perceiving one's worth through the eyes of others.

Relationship anxiety reduced the influence of CSE on that month's proactive behaviour; for such individuals, their own evaluations of current capability aren't really enough to give them confidence that they can act. Yet for these individuals the link between future orientation and proactive behaviour was even stronger than usual. This finding was unpredicted, and Wu and Parker don't discuss it extensively. I might speculate that the insecure quality of this attachment encourages individuals to act on the future when they put it in focus, to quell anxieties and get their house in order. But it's a speculation, nothing more.

This study suggests that for individuals high in relationship anxiety, higher states of CSE may not translate into proactive behaviour. So efforts at work to build capability may not have the desired effects with this group. What may be more beneficial is a more socially oriented approach: "having positive and reliable social relationships with others, such as supportive mentors or colleagues, will alleviate their worries about loss", reducing their degree of anxiety and reliance on this attachment style.  As an additional benefit, such relationships may also strengthen their self-evaluations, further helping these people make their mark in the workplace.

ResearchBlogging.orgWu, C., & Parker, S. (2012). The role of attachment styles in shaping proactive behaviour: An intra-individual analysis Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 85 (3), 523-530 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8325.2011.02048.x

Further reading:

Fuller, J. B., & Marler, L. E. (2009). Change driven by nature: A meta-analytic review of the proactive personality literature. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 75, 329–345. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2009.05.008,


  1. I can relate to the secure attachment style and am highly interested in how the other attachment styles can affect relationships. It reminded me of a related article I read recently about attachment styles...


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  3. I think it's common sense that if you have anxiety your going to be less productive.

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