What can child psychology teach us about teams and culture?
What can child psychology teach us about teams and culture?

What can child psychology teach us about teams and culture?

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I wonder what we can take from human attachment theory and apply to belonging and culture in teams?

Often innovation isn’t actually something new but taking a log established idea and applying it in a new sphere or context like engineering solutions to chemical processes or lessons from biology for technology. I think there is a lot to be learned from childhood attachment theory to the concept of belonging in a business and also from developmental disciplines to culture.


Attachment refers to a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. For example, some of the greatest sources of joy involve falling in love, starting a family, being reunited with distant loved ones, and sharing experiences with close others. I’m not suggesting we should love our colleagues (although it has been known!) but instead understand the circumstances and process of creating bonds.

In her research in the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded greatly upon Bowlby’s original work. Her groundbreaking “strange situation” study revealed the profound effects of attachment on behavior. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their
Based on the responses the researchers observed, Ainsworth described three major styles of attachment. Later, researchers Main and Solomon (1986) added a fourth attachment style.

1. secure attachment,
2. ambivalent-insecure attachment,
3. avoidant-insecure attachment.
4. called disorganized-insecure attachment based on their own research.

What is important about this is that these is that most carry into adult life and some are modified by the experience of new attachment. For example someone who failed to find attachment with their parent may later find it from another responsible adult or role model, perhaps a scout-leader, karate-instructor, community-leader etc.

My contention is that we feel attached to good bosses, good groups, in much the same way using the same psychology.


I am not alone in this theory. Hazan and Shaver asked research subjects to read the three paragraphs listed below, and indicate which paragraph best characterized the way they think, feel, and behave in close relationships:

A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.

Based on this three-category measure, Hazan and Shaver found that the distribution of categories was similar to that observed in infancy. In other words, about 60% of adults classified themselves as secure (paragraph B), about 20% described themselves as avoidant (paragraph A), and about 20% described themselves as anxious-resistant (paragraph C).


This sounds like a guide for cult leaders or creepy stalkers but the reality is that we may want to court our followers. Canadian developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, outlined six stages of attachment

The 6 Stages of Attachment

First Proximity

An infant begins the journey of attachment to the parent or caregiver through Proximity by touch, contact and closeness. As they grow and we send the message that we like to be around them, attachment gets stronger.

I content that we follow leaders who are close to us, either literally (management by walking about) or as a result of regular updates, check-in, etc. During the late 1970s, Allen undertook a project to determine how the distance between engineers’ offices affects the frequency of technical communication between them. The result of that research produced what is now known as the Allen Curve, revealing a strong negative correlation between physical distance and the frequency of communication between work stations. The finding also revealed the critical distance of 50 meters for weekly technical communication.

Second Sameness

Around the age of two, a child adds Sameness. Their desire to be like us is an important element in their acquisition of language. It also helps the growing child—and adolescent—continue to feel connected to us when we emphasize interests or inclinations that we share with them.

I content that we follow leaders who are like us, and in turn we seek to be similar to them. This is why culture may be indicated by the style of language, dress, behaviour, routines and rituals.

Third Belonging or Loyalty

Around three, a child’s connection further develops through Belonging or Loyalty. Children of this age are possessive of their parents, pushing siblings off Mommy’s lap or saying things like, “I want to marry you, Daddy.” With bonding through loyalty, the child also begins wanting do what we ask of them.

In business we ask leaders to be role models, and I see no psychological difference with the parenting process.

Fourth Significance

Connection deepens even more with the next stage: Significance. By letting our child know how he or she is special to us, we fortify the sense of closeness between us.

We see this when despite being part of a massive and somewhat anonymous workforce we bristle with pride when we are recognised, praised or rewarded for our efforts and achievements. We feel significant. Doesn’t everyone want to feel that their work is valued, important and significant? Where people don’t feel this they often leave: The old saying being people join good firms, but leave bad bosses.

Fifth Love

Around five years old, the child moves into the fifth stage of attachment, Love. This is where the whole range of emotions begin to help deepen attachment between parent and child.

OK maybe in the business context respect or admire may be better than love, but the idea of a strong enduring relationship that transcends the everyday is an interesting one to consider.

Sixth Being Known

And finally, the last stage — Being Known — is where if all has gone well, the child from six on up tells us their secrets. This, to me, is the most important stage, and the one that plays a critical role as we guide our pre-teens and teens through adolescence safely towards a healthy adult life.

As an extension of Significance, being know is also important and perhaps manifest in the many and various person-of-the-month, specialist and business awards, the blogs and articles and the pieces on Social Media that court clicks, likes, shares and followers.


The above seems a useful cult leaders recipe for creating and nurturing followers, or indeed for creating a sense of loyalty and attachment to the people, product or brand. This however is not culture. It is beyond this text to deep dive into culture but some definition is useful.

Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. It can be argued that the major elements of culture are symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts.

Business culture refers to the set of behavioral and procedural norms that can be observed within a company — which includes its policies, procedures, ethics, values, employee behaviors and attitudes, goals and code of conduct

I’m interested in this set of behavioral and procedural norms and comparing to the discipline we apply to children. I don’t mean discipline only in its corrective sense (the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct) but also as a talent skill, habit, routine (a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education).


[1] Use connection, not separation, to bring a child into line.

Rather than time-out or the naughty step connect before you correct. Also breathe before you connect: Take a moment and pull yourself together before you react.

It seems to me that his also applies with adults, we are more strongly persuaded or influenced by those with whom we have a connection and expulsion or exclusion is more likely to provoke worse behaviour rather than better.

[2] When problems occur, work the relationship, not the incident.

This section addresses what may be called “dog training” as applied to children: ie, if we don’t correct the behaviour immediately, right now, then our children will obviously grow up to be delinquents.

I can see that it is better to attack the problem not the person. But so that the person doesn’t take it personally (and become defensive or dismissive) it is useful to first reaffirm the relationship (friend, teacher, colleague) and the intention (to help, support, guide).

[3] When Things Aren’t working for the child, draw out the tears instead of trying to teach a lesson.

Present things firmly and to not justify, explain, reason it all away and sometimes that makes the child upset and causes tears. “Your sister said no.” “I can’t let you do that.” This may very well draw tears, but you still have to be lovingly firm. Boundaries!

This certainly true in change management with adults where we need to be clear about what will or wont change and what is non-negotiable. This is recognised by the Kubler Ross Change Curve and the stages: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance.

[4] Solicit good intentions instead of demanding good behaviour.

Provide something for the child to hang on to that gets them going in the direction you want – ask for their help, redirect, garner cooperation, with older children share your own values. I think you’re old enough to try it now. What do you think? Are you willing to work on it?”

There is a direct comparison here with adult feedback, often highlighting the ‘error’ and its impact, and offering alternative approach to practice and the benefits of doubt so.

[5] Draw out the mixed feelings instead of trying to stop impulsive behaviour.

Behaviour is an output so it is useful to understand the inputs and processing that created that output. Inevitably things like anger are a mixed feeling of frustration, anxiety, hurt and perhaps other elements in a volatile cocktail that appears to have only one recourse. Understanding and addressing the elements and defuse the situation and provide new recourse.

This is as true in adults as it is in children.

[6] When dealing with an impulsive child, try scripting the desired behaviour instead of demanding maturity.

We help our children by providing cues with models. “Many kinds of behaviour can be scripted or role modelled: fairness, helping, sharing, co-operation, conversation, gentleness, consideration, getting along.

This is as true in adults as it is in children.

[7] When unable to change the child, try changing the child’s world.

A change of environment, location, circumstance can provoke a new perspective or simply create aa moment to recalibrate, reflect and change.

In the adult and business context often going out for a coffee or lunch can create a new setting and reset the relationship, re-establish rapport and create a new foundation on which to build.


I wonder how others feel about this application of child psychology in a leadership context? Is it true? Is it useful? Is it kind?
If you dont follow, please do. Come and join me on our shared journey exploring new ideas and opportunities @timhjrogers #timhjrogers

Tim HJ Rogers
ICF Coach, IoD Mentor, Mediation Practitioner
MBA Management Consultant + Change Practitioner

Helping people and organisations achieve their goals: We facilitate and support the thinking, feeling and action needed to resolve and move forward.

#being #coach #coaching #facilitation #feeling #icfcoach #jersey #mediation #mentor #philosophy #psychology #purpose #thinking #timhjrogers #training #workshops


Useful links

What Is Attachment Theory?

Three Implications of Adult Attachment Theory

Discipline That Does Not Divide

Neufeld’s Six Stages of Attachment at Bedtime (Part I: Stages 1 to 3)

Neufeld’s Six Stages of Attachment and What They Mean for Bedtime Part II: Stages 4 to 6

What is the Kübler-Ross Change Curve?

How to Give the Most Effective Feedback

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