Securely Attached: Automation and the New Valued Employee (LIP)

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Author’s Note: I recently signed up for an account over at LinkedIn, the social networking site for businesses and business people. I created a LinkedIn account because I was regularly receiving invitations from friends and colleagues. LinkedIn has a blog service known as LinkedIn Pulse. I thought it might be fun to write a few posts specifically for LinkedIn Pulse on the connections between Bowlbian attachment theory and the world of business (yes, there are such connections). Never one to pass up an opportunity to re-purpose content, I figured I’d post my LinkedIn Pulse posts here at BLT as well. I’ll indicate posts that were written specifically for LinkedIn Pulse with “LIP” at the end of the title as well as a note at the beginning of the post. The nice thing about the LinkedIn Pulse blog is you do not have to have a LinkedIn account to search for and view these posts. So, welcome to my first LinkedIn Pulse post. Click on this link to read this article over at LinkedIn. Keep in mind that my LIP posts will be directed to a business audience, many of whom may not be familiar with Bowlby’s work. As a result, the information I present may be a review for those familiar with Bowlby’s work. Enjoy – Rick

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Back in June of 2010, I started a blog entitled Bowlby Less Traveled. Who is this “Bowlby” I speak of? Psychologist John Bowlby is arguably the father of attachment theory. Working principally in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Bowlby developed a theory—based on his clinical observations—designed to help us understand why people and many higher order animals bond. [1] Bowlby’s theory also allows us to understand why we (yes, even animals such as dogs, elephants, and horses) go through grief and mourning when attachment bonds are broken, usually through loss of some kind. Sure, I enjoy talking about mainstream topics drawn from the world of Bowlbian attachment theory (such as my recent blog series on Bowlbian attachment theory and addiction); but what I really enjoy is building bridges between Bowlby’s work and other areas not in the mainstream. My bridge building work in recent months has surprisingly taken me into the world of business. Allow me to briefly explain why this is happening.

Bowlby suggested that we could form attachment bonds with people, animals, our religions, our communities, and even our jobs and careers. Ever since I read economist Jeremy Rifkin’s prophetic 1995 book entitled The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, I’ve been interested in the topic of how automation will affect our attachment lives through loss of jobs and careers (and, in some cases, communities). Here’s a list of the books by business leaders and entrepreneurs I’ve been reading on the subject of automation and job loss:

  • Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford (2015)
  • Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan (2015)
  • The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen (2015)
  • Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will by Geoff Colvin (2015)

The book I’d like to focus in on here is Colvin’s Humans Are Underrated. Colvin is Fortune Magazine editor at large. Colvin makes an interesting point: “[T]he skills that are becoming most valuable now” are the “skills of deeply human interaction.” Colvin tries to convince us that the skills that automation cannot replace easily are human interaction skills like empathy, being reflective, and knowing the minds of others. “The skills that become increasingly valuable as technology advances,” writes Colvin, “are about what we’re like.” Here’s Colvin’s “bottom line”: “Now, as technology drives forward more powerfully every year, the transition to the newly valuable skills of empathizing, collaborating, creating, leading, and building relationships is happening faster than corporations, governments, education systems, or most human psyches can keep up with.”

Okay, here’s where I put on my bridge building tool belt. If I had to sum up Bowlby’s theory of attachment in one sentence, it would be the following: An early safe and secure attachment relationship between an infant/young child and his or her primary caregiver (typically a mother) forms the foundation upon which rests the Executive Function skills such as empathy, mental modeling, appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, and mental time travel. In essence, where go early attachment relationships, so too later Executive Function skills, the same ones that Colvin points to as being valuable. For more on the connection between early attachment relationships and the later development of Executive Function skills, see the book The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control (2014) by psychologist Walter Mischel (developer of the Marshmallow Test, a test designed to evaluate the ability to delay gratification in kids).

So, all this to say that I agree with Colvin when he suggests that as automation continues to gobble up jobs and careers, those able to find (and attach to) jobs and careers will possess robust Executive Function skills such as empathy, being reflective, knowing other minds, and being able to run what if or as if scenarios in one’s mind. And, yes, the royal developmental road leading toward robust Executive Function skills is an early history of safe and secure attachment.

All is not lost if an early safe and secure attachment relationship was not forthcoming. As Colvin correctly points out, Executive Function skills can be learned. And, yes, there are schools and businesses that are using Executive Function training programs. However, if schools and businesses are truly interested in Colvin’s skills of the future, then it makes sense for them to place some focus on the state of our early attachment relationships (via Bowlby’s theory).

MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, has looked at these early attachment relationships and talks about their state in her sobering 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. What Turkle found were more and more kids, and increasingly adults, forming attachments to technology such as smartphones, the Internet, and Facebook. Unfortunately these types of attachments to technology impede the development of robust Executive Function skills as opposed to promote them. For more on this theme I’ll point the reader towards social critic Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

As I build more bridges between Bowlbian attachment theory and the world of business, I’ll post more about my efforts here at LinkedIn Pulse. As they say, stay tuned.


[1] Bowlby went to great lengths to describe his theory of attachment in a way that was approachable for the layperson. The result was a three volume set with the following titles (often referred to collectively as Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment):

  • Volume I—Attachment: Attachment and Loss (1969)
  • Volume II—Separation: Anxiety And Anger (1973)
  • Volume III—Loss: Sadness And Depression (1980)