Employee negative emotions in supervisory relationships : an attachment theory perspective
Relationships with supervisors are a major source of negative emotions at work, but little is known about why this is so. The aim of the research was to use attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1973; 1980) as a framework for investigating the nature and causes of employee negative emotional experiences, in the context of their supervisory relationships. The research was conducted in three stages. In Stage 1 two studies were conducted to develop a measure of employee perceptions of supervisor caregiving (SCS). Results indicated that the 20-item scale had good reliability and validity. Stage 2 required participants (N=183) to complete a questionnaire that was designed to examine the roles of supervisor caregiving and working models (specific and global) in determining cognitive and emotional responses to hypothetical supervisor behaviours. The results provided partial support for an Independent Effects Model. Supervisor caregiving predicted specific anxiety and avoidance. In tum, both dimensions of attachment predicted negative emotions, but this relationship was mediated by event interpretation only in the case of avoidance. Global models made a smaller but significant contribution to negative emotions overall. There was no support for an interaction effect between specific and global models in determining event interpretation. In stage 3 a sub-sample of questionnaire respondents (N=24) were interviewed about 'real-life' caregiving and negative emotional experiences in their supervisory relationships. Secure individuals experienced supervisors as consistently warm, available, and responsive. They reported few negative events or emotions. Individuals with insecure specific working models experienced rejecting or inconsistent supervisor caregiving. They were sensitised to trust and closeness issues in their relationships, and reported negative events and emotions underpinned by these themes. Overall, results broadly supported attachment theory predictions. It is concluded that an attachment theory perspective provides new insight into the nature and causes of employee negative emotions in supervisory relationships.