Why Insecure People Make Such Bad Bosses

Your job, and life, will be much less stressful if your boss feels secure

Posted Jan 31, 2015

The comedy Horrible Bosses, was a ridiculous parody of the extreme awkwardness and discomfort that employees can experience when their bosses are exploitative, incompetent, or capricious. In reality, people experience difficulties with their bosses for a variety of mundane reasons.

You, or your partner, may have a boss right now who’s making your life miserable perhaps by having overly high standards, making unrealistic demands, or communicating confusing messages about what’s wanted from you. The basic dynamic of employee-employer relationships contains the potential to create problems even in the best of circumstances. There's a power differential between employer and employee in which the employer clearly holds the upper hand. With the ability to fire you, give you a raise or not, or create unpleasant work conditions, the boss is in control. Whether younger or older than you, senior or junior in experience, or more or less educated than you, the odds are always in favor of the person who's in charge.

Of the many reasons that bosses can be bad, feelings of insecurity on their part must surely stand out as one of the most crucial. An insecure person, in general, creates havoc in the lives of others, particularly if that individual has what’s called an insecure attachment style.  

An attachment style is what psychologists call the “internal working model” that we have of relationships with the important people in our lives. In our very first days of life, we begin to form a primitive sense of whether or not the caregivers in our world will look out for our needs.

A caregiver who is a “safe haven” allows the child to feel cared for without feeling smothered. The child with this safe haven is most likely to become securely attached. A caregiver who neglects the child or is overly intrusive will cause the child to feel insecurely attached.  Either the child becomes anxiously attached (constantly seeking reassurance) or avoidant (unwilling to trust anyone). Another possibility is that the individual becomes ambivalently attached, feeling the push and pull of connections with others.

These basics of attachment theory suggest how insecurely attached individuals make life difficult for their partners.  An avoidant partner will resist closeness and intimacy, an anxiously attached one will constantly fear rejection and an ambivalent one will be unable to follow through on close commitments.

However, people express their attachment styles in a variety of contexts, not just their closest relationships. You don’t leave your personality at the door when you enter the workplace. The insecurely attached employee may fret constantly about the prospect of being fired, regardless of the reality of the situation (anxious) or may refuse to identify with the goals and values of the organization (avoidant). A securely attached employee will be productive, resilient, and relatively easy to manage. Not fearing harmful outcomes, securely attached workers can concentrate on the job rather than on the likelihood that the boss will fire or exploit them.

Just as employees bring their attachment styles to work, so do their bosses. A securely attached boss will have tend to be generally trusting and respectful of the needs that employees have to be treated well. Bosses who are insecurely attached will show a variety of poor management habits, either being cold and distant (avoidant) or overly intrusive (anxious).

Because attachment style contributes to an individual’s overall sense of self, insecurely attached bosses also have the potential to worry that their employees are better than they are. Jealously guarding their positions, these insecure bosses fret about being upstaged by someone new or made to look bad in front of their own boss. Concerned, too, that their employees might gang up on them, they try to exploit the petty arguments and jealousies that arise among those they supervise rather than build team support.

Having an insecure boss will make you an unhappier and, as a result, less productive worker. Texas Tech University Professor Amanda Hinojosa and collaborators examined the phenomenon of authentic leadership, a pattern of behavior that promotes positive qualities and ethical behavior in followers. The authentic leader is self-aware, has an internalized moral compass, can process information in a balanced manner, and shows transparency in relations with others.

Hinojosa and her colleagues propose a typology consisting of different combinations of attachment styles between leaders and followers (bosses and employees). Bosses and employees who are both securely attached have the greatest potential of developing an authentic relationship. They'll become the dynamic duo who enjoy each other's company, show respect toward each other, and come up with the best results for themselves and the company.

The combination with the least potential for authenticity is that of an insecure-ambivalent follower and insecure-avoidant leader. These polar opposites, as in a close relationship pair, bring out the worst in each other, and the relationship is called anti-authentic, accordingly.

The non-authentic relationship occurs when one partner is securely attached and the other is avoidant. As in a romantic relationship, you get the cold shoulder when you (the securely attached person) attempt to express your feelings openly and honestly. If it’s the boss who’s avoidant, the power differential becomes even more problematic than in a romantic relationship. The avoidant boss doesn’t want to hear what you think, leaving you to feel unappreciated for your efforts. You know that the boss controls what happens to you, but there's little you can do to change things.

Insecurely attached bosses may also communicate mixed messages to their employees, in what Hinojosa and her team call the pseudo-authentic style. You may feel that your boss cares about your opinions and reactions but then get shot down when you express them.

Finally, there can be a complete authenticity void if both the boss and employee have avoidant attachment styles. Neither makes a pretense about caring what the other one thinks. When they’re forced to share information, as at a staff meeting, neither trusts the other enough to take what they’re saying at face value. You think your boss has an ulterior motive, and your boss feels the same way about you.

Whether you have a boss or not, someone you know and care about probably does. Understanding the dynamics of the insecure boss can help you gain more confidence in your own abilities. Also, by realizing it’s a two-way street, and that both of your attachment styles matter, you can gain insight into your own contribution to problematic relationships at work. If you’re the insecure boss, and you see yourself in these attachment styles, knowing the impact of your leadership on your employees can allow you to work toward building relationships that are more productive and fulfilling.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

Reference:

Hinojosa, A. S., Davis McCauley, K., Randolph-Seng, B., & Gardner, W. L. (2014). Leader and follower attachment styles: Implications for authentic leader–follower relationships. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(3), 595-610.