Managing Learned Helplessness

If you’ve ever been so deep in a hole that you couldn’t see a way out, or managed someone whose 'victimhood' drove you mad, you might have been dealing with Learned Helplessness.

Does either of these comments resonate?

“I’m useless at this.  It doesn’t matter what I do, it’ll still be wrong.  I’ll just keep my head down and hope no one picks me out.”

 “She’s incapable of completing the simplest of tasks without constant supervision – I might as well do the job myself.  There’s no point expecting the slightest initiative.  I don’t know why we employ her.”

Essentially, they’re two sides of Learned Helplessness.  Without going into long psychological explanations, Learned Helplessness occurs when people persistently believe (based on perceptions of past experiences), that they can’t control the events and circumstances in their lives.  Furthermore, it’s all down to their own inadequacies.  Seeing no way out, they simply put up with the situation.  (The light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of the oncoming train, and they are rooted to the spot.)  Their managers, on the other hand, become frustrated, and may micro-manage or even bully them. (Managers see them as uninvolved, un-caring, possibly lazy or somewhat stupid.)

Typical symptoms:

  • I’m running for cover.  I feel helpless – I used to be able to do this job, but I’m not good enough anymore.  I can’t cope.  I’ve lost my mojo.
  • I’ve lost my job and will never get another: there’s nothing for me out there;  I’m too old; have the wrong skillset; I don’t fit the profile; there’s no point even applying – they’ll only reject me - again…..
  • I hate this work, but I can’t leave or even request a transfer: No one else will want me.
  • Please don’t let them ask me to speak at the meeting, I never know what to say, and I’ll only make a fool of myself.  They’ll all think I’m stupid.

The Business Cost

We all have days when we feel a bit like that, but when it lasts for an extended period, we’re in trouble.  What does this belief cost your business? Here are some sales examples.  Do I avoid asking for the sale? Maybe I tend to sell low cost or heavily discounted options only.  Instead of talking to customers and finding out their needs, I give free samples, rely on brochures, and hope the customer wants to buy at just that moment Our lack of self-belief leeks out – internally to our teams, externally to our customers.  When you start out feeling defeated, you’re unlikely to get a good result.   In fact, you Can’t get it. And if you work with others, that atmosphere can permeate the entire group.  "We’re going to lose."  It happens to football teams.  It happens to work teams. 

Learned helplessness is a combination of low self-esteem, combined with a feeling of powerlessness, resignation and acceptance of the status quo as immutable.

Learned Helplessness can be Un-learned

This is the good bit, you CAN do something to change.  Some of us suffer only in particular areas.  For others it is pervasive and debilitating.  If you manage people with learned helplessness, you can help.


Internal blame: It’s MY fault Universal: I’m always useless at everything Situation is Permanent: It’ll never change

CONSTRUCTIVE Recognise external factors: It’s not my fault Specific: This particular aspect is the biggest problem Situation is Fluid: There’s always scope for change

Recognising the situation is the starting point to dealing with it.  Whether managing yourself, or managing a helpless person, always bear in mind two perspectives:

  1. Focus on a very Specific issue
  2. Become Action-Oriented
By doing this, you’re removing the blame aspect, re-framing and reducing the overwhelming size of the issue, and focusing on what CAN be done rather than feeling powerless. Break the actions down into very specific, small tasks, and then acknowledge completion (“Well done”).  It sounds so simple, and may take a few attempts to get it right, so persevere.

There’s plenty of literature available on-line for you to go deeper into this issue.  The main challenge is that people suffering from Learned Helplessness don’t necessarily see the opportunities for change, so managers may literally have to walk them through despite themselves. Even if it doesn’t go quite to plan the first time – it’s only a small task, not the entire project – you can try it differently again.

As Mao Tse Tung so aptly put it, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”.

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