Why the dysfunction in your team
may be caused by attachment trauma
(and what to do about it)

In a world where organisations must constantly maintain innovation, performance, and engagement to succeed, there is a hidden factor that often impedes their progress. This factor, often unrecognised but deeply impactful, is attachment trauma. Understanding its profound influence on organisational dynamics can unlock new levels of team performance and support creating and maintaining healthy organisational culture, enhancing profitability and talent retention.

Allow me to share a transformative experience I had recently working with a senior leadership team in a company grappling with team conflicts and consequent project delays. Despite the innate talent of each team member, their interactions were marked by mistrust and miscommunication, significantly hampering their efficiency and collaborative potential. 

The People and Culture leads in this company realised that these symptoms were indicative of deeper relational issues. I was brought in to provide team coaching to help address these underlying dynamics and get the team back on track.

I drew on my expertise as a coach, mindful leadership expert and award-winning clinical psychologist – a combination which positions me as someone who can address the hidden psychological factors that were holding the team back from innovating and performing at the level they needed to operate at.

During the sessions I had with the team, I introduced them to the notion of attachment trauma and helped them see how their own attachment styles were influencing their professional interactions. For example, a project manager, conditioned by an unpredictable childhood, was often sceptical about team commitments, always bracing for disappointment. Another team member, habitually criticised during their formative years, interpreted constructive feedback as a personal attack, reacting with defensiveness and withdrawing.

My approach combined communication and leadership skills training, and also included evidence-based psychological strategies to help foster a secure team environment. We engaged in exercises that improved emotional literacy and mutual understanding. I empowered the team members to understand the way their own attachment styles were co-creating the difficulties they were having working cohesively, and I took them through some powerful activities to enhance self-leadership, effective communication and conflict resolution. 

As they started increasing their self awareness and applying the tools I taught them, the transformation was rapid. The team’s productivity improved, they met deadlines more efficiently, and the camaraderie during meetings blossomed into genuine collaborative spirit. This not only enhanced their project outcomes but also rippled through the broader organisational culture, enhancing overall organisational culture and leading to greater talent retention.

Understanding Attachment Trauma

As a society we are becoming more aware of the effects of trauma on wellbeing and interpersonal functioning, with key figures like Dr Gabor Mate helping us understand the prevalence of trauma and why this underlies so many challenges that people face in their lives. However, this narrative often focuses on what I call “capital T trauma” (such as accidents, assaults and other one-off critical incidents) and neglects to examine the more pernicious and widespread effect of “small t trauma”, which refers to the attachment wounds many of us receive during our childhoods.

Attachment trauma stems from early relational disruptions with primary caregivers (commonly parents, but also other significant figures during childhood development). When these foundational interactions are characterised by neglect, inconsistency, or emotional unavailability on the part of our early attachment figures, it can result in long-lasting difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood. This impacts us in every area of our interpersonal lives – both at work and at home. In professional settings, attachment wounds often manifest as challenges with trust, handling criticism, managing stress, and navigating interpersonal conflicts.

So how do you know if attachment wounds are causing dysfunction in your teams?

Here are some common symptoms of employees who are caught in reactive attachment trauma-based interactional patterns:

Trust issues with colleagues and leadership:

Employees with unresolved attachment issues may struggle with trusting their peers or leaders, potentially misinterpreting motives and resisting collaborative efforts.

According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, lack of trust employees have towards their employers is a major issue, with only 57% of global respondents indicating that they trust their own employer to do what is right. The Edelman survey also showed that employees who trust their employer are far more likely to advocate for the organisation, stay loyal, and be more engaged.

Sensitivity to feedback:

Individuals with a history of negative feedback experiences may have developed heightened sensitivity as a protective mechanism. This sensitivity can be understood through the lens of attachment theory, which suggests that early interactions with caregivers can influence one’s response to criticism or feedback later in life. Those with insecure attachments may not have received consistent support or positive reinforcement, leading to a lack of confidence in their abilities and value. As a result, these individuals might view feedback as a reaffirmation of their fears of inadequacy or rejection.

In a professional setting, this sensitivity can manifest in employees quickly becoming defensive when feedback is given, ready to justify their actions or decisions rather than listening openly and considering the comments. When they do receive feedback, these employees tend to withdraw from team interactions, which can be seen in decreased participation in meetings, reluctance to collaborate, or reduced communication with colleagues and supervisors.

Addressing resistance to feedback is vital, with Gallup research showing that employees who receive regular, specific feedback are 12% more productive.


Employees caught in dysfunctional attachment patterns commonly disengage due to fears related to intimacy and dependency. This is a significant factor in many workplaces, with Gallup research indicating that around 60% of workers worldwide are disengaged at work, meaning they are psychologically unattached to their work and company. These employees usually do the minimum required and are likely to leave for a slightly better offer. 

Gallup also found that 17% of employees are actively disengaged, meaning they not only do minimal work but can also sabotage projects and intentionally hinder the efforts of their engaged colleagues, impacting overall team and organisational performance. 

Disengaged employees are more likely to steal from their company, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away. Gallup’s data shows that businesses with more engaged teams with more engaged teams experience 21% higher profitability. Teams in the top quartile of engagement also see significantly better results in various areas including customer engagement, productivity, retention, and safety incidents.

Resistance to organisational change:

Research indicates that uncertainty during organisational change can trigger a stress response known as “change fatigue,” characterised by decreased energy, burnout, and disengagement. This response is particularly pronounced among employees who anticipate negative outcomes. Moreover, individuals with underlying attachment trauma may experience intensified effects due to their heightened sensitivity to perceived threats or instability. 

According to a report by McKinsey, around 70% of change programs fail to achieve their goals. This high failure rate is often attributed to employee resistance, commonly resulting from fear of the unknown and anticipated negative consequences. 

Attachment trauma can amplify fears related to security and trust, making these employees more vulnerable to the adverse effects of change fatigue. As they may struggle more with trust and fear of abandonment or criticism, the uncertainty inherent in organisational changes can disproportionately exacerbate their stress response, leading to even lower energy, increased burnout, and deeper disengagement.

Overcoming attachment wounds and unlocking greater team performance

To help the team address their attachment wounds and enhance collaboration, innovation, and performance, I adopted a multifaceted approach. 

Initial assessment and awareness building

The process began with individual assessments to help team members gain insight into their own attachment styles and how these might influence their behaviour and interactions at work. This involved confidential surveys and one-on-one coaching sessions where team members could explore their personal histories in a safe, confidential environment.

Educational workshops

I conducted workshops to educate the team about attachment theory, helping them understand how early experiences with caregivers could impact their relationships as adults, including those at work. These sessions included exercises that illustrated common reactions to stress or conflict that might stem from insecure attachment patterns, such as avoidance or anxiety. 

I drew upon my expertise in Internal family Systems, a powerful model of self development that empowers people to identify their attachment wounds and relate to their wounded “parts” in more conscious and compassionate ways. This unlocks the ability to stay calm and centred in any situation, and is the foundation of effective self-leadership.

Establishing a psychologically safe environment

To cultivate a safe and supportive team environment, I implemented regular team-building activities designed to strengthen trust and mutual respect. These activities encouraged vulnerability and openness, allowing team members to share their feelings and experiences without fear of judgement. This step was crucial in dismantling the walls of defensiveness and building a foundation for more authentic connections.

Tailored communication strategies

With a better understanding of each other’s emotional triggers and needs, the team learned to adapt their communication styles. For instance, someone with an avoidant attachment style who might withdraw during stressful situations was given more space to process information, while team members were taught to approach them in a non-threatening, supportive manner. 

Other team members who tended to compensate for their underlying wounds by being authoritarian and dominating learned to soothe their own reactive emotions and communicate in more empowering, conscious ways.

A profound transformation in a short period of time

By the end of this journey, the team exhibited a remarkable transformation:

Enhanced collaboration:

The trust and understanding developed through this process led to a more collaborative environment. Team members were more willing to share ideas, give constructive feedback, and leverage their diverse strengths in joint projects.

Greater innovation:

Freed from the constraints of fear and insecurity, the team became more innovative. They felt more confident in proposing new ideas and experimenting with solutions, knowing that their contributions would be met with support rather than criticism.

Even when team members proposed new ideas that were not adopted, these team members learned to receive this as feedback rather than a rejection of them personally.

Improved performance:

As the team became more cohesive and communication improved, they were able to work more efficiently and effectively. Projects were completed faster, with better results, and the overall quality of work improved significantly.

A stronger organisational culture:

The atmosphere within the team shifted from one of tension and uncertainty to one of security and enthusiasm. Job satisfaction scores improved, as did overall mental health and well-being.

This detailed, conscious approach to resolving attachment wounds transformed not just the professional but also the personal dynamics of the team, leading to a more positive, productive, and innovative workplace. The success of this intervention highlighted the profound impact of increased self awareness and the resolution of attachment wounds in enhancing team performance and cohesion.

Are you ready to transform your team’s dynamics and achieve unprecedented levels of performance and innovation? Contact me today to discuss how this approach can be tailored to fit your organisation’s unique needs. Let’s unlock the full potential of your team together.

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