It happens in all types of organizations, for that matter, you’ve probably encountered it, but didn’t know what it was:
That sense that everyone is frustrated and venting, no one is growing, some people are regressing, problems go unresolved, people are not content, and the group think is:
“NO MATTER WHAT WE WANT TO TRY, WE WON’T BE ABLE TO FIX OR IMPROVE THINGS”.
What is this sense of helplessness and where does it come from?
In the late 1960’s, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term after a study on dogs showed that, over time, past negative experiences can so strongly engrain a response of “unable to take control” when confronted with problem solving, that the subjects simply gave up trying to flee a bad situation. Even more surprising was that as they watched others successfully escape, they didn’t follow suit. How did this happen? Sadly, the dogs were shocked, and the consequences grew worse when they attempted to resist.
Now, put back in the context of: A particularly poor manager who grips tightly to control and lashes out with hostility when challenged; a general lack of autonomy for employees with no avenue to manage up or across; a narcissistic department lead who won’t listen to new perspectives; or a culture that is quick to belittle employees for stepping outside the box, playing in someone else’s sandbox, or challenging the status quo – we can start to see how employees might become less confident and essentially impotent in their roles after experiencing escalating negative reactions or consequences as they attempt new things.
What happens next is the complaining, the depression, poor performance, more politics, and all the negative consequences that reduced productivity brings to the bottom line. The organization becomes unhealthy and toxic and no-one is attempting to make things better.
This scenario does not have to be systemic in the organization. It could be isolated to one employee who — even as they watch others grow, thrive, and promote — is feeling they have no choices, no voice, and will not have the opportunity to succeed because of past experiences. They have resigned themselves to mediocracy, even if there isn’t someone stopping them from doing better.
Ordinarily, neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and heal from physical or emotional injury, helps us to move forward after negative experiences. Now, while some individuals experience difficultly maximizing this function because of chemical imbalances or their internal wiring, realistically, this amazing function can be triggered again with the right POSITIVE experiences to help overcome learned helplessness.
So, as leaders, how do we overcome learned helplessness in the workplace?
There is a way out and leadership can drive it:
- Recognize the Problem: If you’re hearing “there’s nothing we can do”, “we tried that already”, “there’s no point”, or simply “it is out of our control”, you might be seeing learned helplessness.
- Own It and Call It Out: When dealing with a problem born out of negative experiences, you don’t want to compound the issue by intimidating your employees in the way you address it, but you do need to be able to articulate it and move them forward. Conversations that start with “I understand”, “I realize”, “it might seem challenging”, “we can overcome this problem”, “together we…” and “this will benefit you by…” are good ways to introduce that you are seeing them hold themselves back and how their own inaction is making their sense of “lack of control” a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Set Clear Expectations: Often, there isn’t intent by management to compound someone’s sense of inadequacy. It can be very simply, a lack of understanding between the two parties. When an employee isn’t sure of what’s okay and what’s not okay, they are less effective in self-management. When employees perform poorly, make sure your expectations were established and clear when you consider corrective action. Make sure you are talking and providing support or feedback when things are going well, not just when something has gone wrong. If they are fearful that you “want to talk”, there isn’t a positive correlation to when and how you coach, which you are, in part, responsible for.
- Don’t do their jobs for them – instead, have their back. Provide resources, tools, training, and be willing to help break down barriers if they express they are stuck or seem to be flailing. A good leader does not step in and take over to accomplish a task, which will leave the employee feeling inadequate or untrusted, but rather a good leader shows their employees what challenges might be in the path and guides to overcome them. Sometimes all you need to do is tell your employees, “You can do this”. One success can help to contradict one past negative experience, and your support through their struggle, rather than a reaction to punish by taking over, will help them to rise above helplessness. (Besides, who has time to do someone else’s job?)
- Help them get comfortable with risky thinking, in favor of creativity: They need to escape self-imposed restraints, so give them stretch assignments to motivate them to think differently again.
- Set Clear Goals with your team: By having them help to establish goals, you are starting them down the path of moving forward. Give them an opportunity to see themselves as more than they already are.
- Focus on Solutions: Fuel any opportunity to get them brainstorming on what might work. Ask questions that engage them to think about root problems and new ideas to solve them. Even if the answer seems obvious to you, hold back from blurting it out because coming to the table with answers, not questions, will only reinforce their lack of self-worth. Let them find the answer by asking the right questions – this will help them get out of their funk. Helping to re-energize their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills is a “win, win, win” for all stakeholders involved.
- Paint a Bright Future: Seligman’s work took him down the path of examining optimists and pessimists. He wrote, “Optimistic people tend to interpret troubles as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation. Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do, and are uncontrollable.” This tells us that if we can help to see our situation from a different perspective, we will be less likely to suffer from learned helplessness. When you hear your team being negative, remind them of the good you see in the team’s future and how they can help to get there by stepping up.
Businesses know that stress and burn-out can be devastating to the bottom line. Understanding how learned helplessness plays a part in that result is relatively unfamiliar territory. However, as you look at the problem and the potential solutions, it comes down to good leadership, sound business practices, hiring the right people for the right roles, and letting employees drive their performance and the organization to success.
David Ogilvy summed it up nicely: “Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it. Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.”
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