Avoiding Learned Helplessness

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JF

Last month I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Professor Dan Cable of London Business School, talking about a concept called Learned Helplessness and how it is affecting performance at work. Learned Helplessness is a psychological theory initially developed by Martin Seligman in the 1960’s and can be seen in many different aspects of our daily lives. The theory states that in the face of aversive stimuli, which an organism is unable to escape from, the organism will eventually accept the loss of control and give up trying to avoid the pain.

We see this in real life, more so than we are potentially aware of. Weight loss programmes are a great example. Working as an ex-swimming coach I’ve seen dozens of people decide to lose weight and pick up a new exercise regime or diet expecting instant results. When these results don’t come immediately they give up and try a different one, and another and another, eventually reaching a point of learned helplessness where they accept that they can never lose weight and give up trying.

Another example occurred at the World Cup with the Spanish football team. Spain, a footballing giant and a favourite for many to lift the trophy, sacked their manager just two days before the beginning of the tournament. What resulted from this was an embarrassment for a proud footballing nation, Spain were knocked out, in the Round of 16, by minnows Russia. Now there are many factors at play, but one suggested was that many footballers (not just Spanish ones) are so dependent on their managers direction that they’re unable to think for themselves. The Spanish team had five world cup winners in their midst, almost 60 top-tier domestic titles between them all and combined almost 950 international caps. These professionals had the experience to play with any manager, no matter who they were, yet they felt helpless to think for themselves.

So, as a professional, why is this important for you? Well there’s evidence to suggest that many employers are inadvertently creating an environment of Learned Helplessness. Employees are put to task doing mundane repetitive jobs and they lose the ability to engage their brain’s “seeking system” which we use to explore our environment and most importantly experiment and learn new things. And it’s not just repetitive tasks that can foster Learned Helplessness. Many organisations have a culture of “zero-tolerance” to failure. It’s long been known that when workers feel anxious or afraid they no longer receive the physiological reward for being creative or curious, meaning organisations are missing out on those innovative ideas that could make all the difference.

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But what can you do about it? How can you ensure your employees are constantly looking to innovate, be creative and learn new things and not in a state of Learned Helplessness? Well through our work here at Hot Spots Movement, there are a couple of ways which we find to be extremely effective in encouraging innovation:

  1. Ensure Psychological Safety

A common cause of Learned Helplessness in the workplace is a fear of the repercussions of failure and a perception that it is unwise to challenge the status quo. People must feel able to try new things and potentially fail. Google’s approach to this is well documented, with 10% of their people’s time dedicated to working on high risk, potential high reward projects, where failure is seen as a perfectly acceptable outcome for pushing the boundary. Further to this, employees should be comfortable challenging the norm and challenging leaders (within reason) as well. Just because “we’ve always done it that way”, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and you should be encouraging your people to ask “why?”

  1. Encourage an Appetite for Learning

We’ve been banging the drum on this point here at Hot Spots for a little while now. “Good Work” is work that allows you to learn new things. As Dan Cable says, you must ensure your employees’ “Seeking Systems” are engaged to ensure they don’t just go through the motions at work, feeling powerless to change course or experiment. Instead, organisations must create an environment in which people seek to learn new things and where you aid them in developing skills and requirements for the future, not just the now.

  1. Demonstrate results

Finally, Learned Helplessness can easily result if people speak up about a new idea only to have it fall on deaf ears. If you really want your employees to be proactive, take on new challenges and elevate performance, then you need to visibly act on their suggestions or, at the very least, acknowledge the idea and explain what will happen next. It only takes a couple of instances of an employee’s idea being disregarded before Learned Helplessness sets in.

So, what’s the key message for you and your team? Consider the dynamic in your organisation: are people proactive in tackling challenges and crafting a way forward? Or is there a sense of inertia, suggesting a culture of Learned Helplessness? Spot this early and start making the small changes that enable your people to feel back in control.

If you’d like to find out more about how to prevent Learned Helplessness and how you can create a culture of learning and innovation within your organisation, then please don’t hesitate to reach out at john@hotspotsmovement.com

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