Learned helplessness. What comes to mind when you hear that phrase? Probably nothing good.
The phrase comes from studies by psychology researcher Martin Seligman. His studies showed that animals (including humans) were susceptible to giving up all hope when put in an environment where negative outcomes were beyond their control.
Electric shocks and losing hope.
In Seligman’s most notorious and controversial study, he gave dogs electric shocks:
- One group could stop the shocks by pushing a lever.
- The other group could not control the shocks.
Both groups were then put in a box they could easily jump out of and shocked again. While the first group jumped out of the box without issue, those who had just been in an environment where they had no control over the shocks did not jump to escape the shocks. The “no control” group laid and took the shocks.
This sort of behavior was repeated with rats, and since humans have shown similar habits of learned helplessness.
How Learned Helplessness Applies to Employee Engagement & the Workplace
What we learn from the concept of Learned Helplessness is that if you put a person in an environment where bad things happen to them, and they have no control to stop them, depression and disengagement will eventually follow.
Does this sound like a workplace you, a friend, or a family member has ever experienced:
- Politics prevent you from getting work you’re passionate about done.
- Problems that make your work miserable don’t change because you’re unable to address it yourself and no one else seems to care.
- A vicious boss or colleague dumps work on you, blames you for problems, or publicly embarrasses you repeatedly.
- Your manager sets unrealistic deadlines pressuring you to work unsustainable hours to try to do the impossible.
- A rotten, unethical culture repeatedly exposes you to behaviors dramatically inconsistent with your own values.
Those aren’t electric shocks, but in many ways can feel just as painful emotionally.
Whether you are an optimist or pessimist can affect your tolerance level for these sorts of problems. However, eventually, anyone will lose hope and disengage when put in an environment they can’t control bad things happening to and around them.
“Assholes breed like rabbits.”
It doesn’t take long for behavior from even a small group of people to start creating a toxic work environment. And as Robert Sutton asserts in his best-selling book, The No-Asshole Rule, when that behavior is tolerated, it will spread.
As it spreads, it creates the perfect storm to feel helpless. Previously engaged, happy, hard-working employees will find it harder and harder to do their job. At some point they’ll give up, whether that means going through the motions to collect a paycheck, or leaving your company.
A story: Friendly support falters
A friend of mine worked at a company on their customer support team. They were exactly what a great support person needs to be: very detail oriented and loved helping customers succeed. They built strong relationships with many of the most important customers at the company.
Then one day the product started having serious issues. Suddenly, they were flooded with support requests and no way to help them.
While engineering promised they were working on it, after a few months of empty promises it really started wearing on them. They felt saying things would be fixed was a false promise to the customers whose faith they had worked so hard to earn.
At this point, learned helplessness took over. They started doing the minimum effort on support and disengaged. Work they had loved was no longer fun.
Eventually, they became so depressed, they burnt out and quit. After some time off, their optimism and positive outlook returned and they joined another company. However, they and the company they worked for both lost.
Stories like this are all too common. It’s why bad companies “burn and churn” through employees.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
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How to Fix Learned Helplessness
As Andy Grove remarks in his legendary book on management, High Output Management, as a manager you have the power to make things better for your team. If the rest of the organization is working against you, or doesn’t care like you do, it will be harder, but there’s still much you can do.
If you’re in an environment where it seems like someone on your team (or all of them) are developing learned helplessness, here’s some tactics to apply.
1) Shield your team as much as you can.
Just because you’re facing tough challenges does not mean your team has to face all of them, too. As the cartoon from Facebook’s Julie Zhuo shows, a great manager shields their team.
This can take a variety of forms as discussed in this excellent post on the Harvard Business Review by Stanford PhD and best selling author, Robert Sutton:
- Slay—or Slow—Their Enemies:
“Good bosses also protect their people from demeaning, overly demanding, and frustrating clients and customers.
…Ann Rhoades, former head of “People” at Southwest, described how a fellow executive earned the loyalty of several gate agents by interrupting a nasty customer, telling the jerk that he wouldn’t permit his people to be treated that way, and then marching him to an American Airlines counter to buy him another ticket.”
- Take the Heat:
“Former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was beloved by his coaches and players. When the late owner George Steinbrenner became too pushy or critical, Torre deflected the pressure from them to himself.
…Steinbrenner invited himself to a meeting of the coaches the afternoon before a playoff game and was driving them nuts by second-guessing decisions. Torre ended these antics by shouting, “Get out of there, George! Don’t f#$% them up.” Steinbrenner laughed and left.”
You cannot shield your team from everything, but even a few visible, key efforts can go a long way towards building loyalty with your team. This will pay dividends when you have important asks of your team, or other things beyond your control strike.
2) Give them hope with the Progress Principle.
Remember the most important lesson from Learned Helplessness: it’s the feeling of having no control that causes people to give up. When hope is lost, so is the employee.
The best thing you can do for your team is give them reasons to stay hopeful and optimistic. The best way to do that is to leverage the Progress Principle.
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, PhDs from Stanford and the University of Virginia respectively, wanted to answer the question of what makes people happiest at work for the long haul. What they found (as the image above highlights) is that making progress day to day is what makes people happiest.
When you find your team is struggling, or getting frustrated, look for ways to help them make small, incremental progress:
- Remove a blocker: Help fight to get them approval on something that’s blocking their progress.
- Refocus efforts: If they’re stuck in one area, help them make progress in another part of the project.
- Ask for forgiveness, not permission: Similar to the shielding described above, make a decision and take responsibility so your team can move forward.
- Make progress elsewhere: Look for ways they can make progress on something else important to them besides the project they’re frustrated about.
- Help them with career development: It’s the #1 perk people want at work, a leading cause of turnover, and an essential part of anyone’s work life, so a great place to feel progress.
If in doubt, ask yourself, “what’s 1 small way they can make progress today?” Even a little momentum can be the difference between losing hope, and staying engaged.
3) Empower them with intrinsic motivation.
Money is not the only way to motivate people. In fact, many studies show it actually hurts effectiveness on more complex and creative-demanding tasks. For managers who often have limited budgetary control, this is good news.
When your team is frustrated and unhappy, look at what you can do to help with their intrinsic motivation. Dan Pink, author of Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has a great TED talk on this subject:
The key is to realize how much control you have over the 3 areas of intrinsic motivation for your team: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose
- Autonomy – Let your team make decisions on their work as much as you can: how it’s done, when, parts of how it looks, vendors used, etc.
- Mastery – Give your people opportunities to learn and grow. Help them expand their skills and learn from one another.
- Purpose – Make sure everyone on your team knows they’re valued and why their work matters. Recognize your unsung heroes.
While you may not always be able to hit all three areas with everyone, keep them in mind as tools to be used when opportunities present themselves.
Be intentional. A little preparation and planning goes a long way. Find and create opportunities to put people in positive situations that tap into intrinsic motivation, and they’re more likely to stay out of the danger zone of learned helplessness.
Your 1 on 1s are the perfect time to talk about and work on these things. Get help with this kind of preparation and making the most of your 1 on 1s with a free trial of Lighthouse here.
Help your employees develop grit.
It’s not about everything being perfect. No job, no company, and no team ever will be.
However, it’s important that people feel like there is momentum in the right direction.
As a leader, if you can help your team see positive outcomes and progress from their hard efforts, you’ll teach them to be gritty. This will help you deliver great results and prevent them from giving up and slipping into learned helplessness.
How have you helped your teams (or yourself) overcome feelings of helplessness in hard work environments?