How You Might Be Unknowingly Teaching Your Employees To Feel Helpless — And What You Can Do To Prevent It

You know what learned helplessness looks like, even if you didn’t know the term. People don’t bother to vote because they think their one vote doesn’t matter. Husbands and wives avoid expressing their opinion after a harsh rebuke from their spouses. Prisoners refuse to leave their cells even when the gates are open. And, employees stop speaking up when they feel their opinion doesn’t matter.

These are all examples of a phenomena called Learned Helplessness. The scary part is that, as managers, we can actually cause people to feel this way. It can happen when a team member is having trouble learning a new task or is new to the job. It can happen when we don’t listen well or have strong opinions about what we want, especially when we have a personality conflict. And, it can happen when there is a failure.

Awareness is the first step in preventing Learned Helplessness on your team as a manager. By understanding the phenomena and knowing the signs, you can see it happen and be careful in your own behavior to avoid the pitfalls. If you inherit an employee who is feeling this way, you can help them to break free of it’s grasp.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that was discovered in the 70’s by Dr. Martin Seligman. He was conducting experiments with dogs and found through testing with shock treatments (yes, it was a long time ago), the dogs learned quickly to accept punishment and stopped trying to get away from it, even when they could easily escape.

The two-part experiment is interesting. In the first step, the dogs were shocked but some could get away and some could not. Then, they were put in a two-sided box where one side had a shock but they could jump over a low wall to the side with no shock. The dogs who had been able to escape in the first part quickly learned to avoid the shock.

Incredibly, the dogs who could not get away from the shock in the first part, simply laid down and took the shock in the box. Even when the wall was taken away, they did not seek the safety of the other side. Rewards, threats, and demonstrations didn’t help. Only when they actually moved the dogs feet for them did they finally understand they could escape the situation. They had to physically experience it to believe it.

Ok, but they were dogs and us humans are so much smarter, right? As it turns out, we do the same thing…

Educators know about learned helplessness from how it plays out in the classroom. Another study was done where they gave students two different sets of words to unscramble. One side of the classroom had two easy words to start. The other side has two words that were impossible to unscramble. The third word was the same.

The side that had the easy words got it right away but the side that had the impossible words didn’t because their confidence had been shaken. You can watch it happen in this video.

We can take a lesson from them to see its effects in the workplace. It’s also important to know that Learned Helplessness gets worse with stress and it’s difficult (but not impossible) to let go of once it sets in. When our jobs — our team status, our income, our family status, maybe even housing and food — are on the line, we can more easily become victim to the feeling.

The Danger of Creating Learned Helplessness in Your Employees

Team performance suffers when members experience this phenomena because it prevents people from using the full abilities of their brain. To get the best thinking from your employees, you need them to be using the PreFrontal Cortex (PFC) of their brain. This is where the complex thinking happens: planning, decision making and moderating social behavior.

If your employees feel any sort of fear, the PFC will shut down and the Amygdala, also called the Primitive Brain will take over. The Primitive Brain is where the fight, flight, freeze or appease reactions occur. Also called an ‘Amygdala Hijack’, if your employee is in fight or flight mode it’s just not possible for them to be thinking creatively at that same time. No matter how brilliant this employee is, you’ve just shut down their most important asset.

In addition to losing your employee’s brain power, serious health concerns can occur when they go beyond fight or flight into Learned Helplessness.

The alarming fact about learned helplessness is that it strongly correlates with mental health problems such as depression and emotional reactions, usually expressed with anger towards someone the person feels most comfortable with. That is the clinical way to say that you could unwittingly be causing your employees to become depressed or to take out their feelings of frustration on the people they love. There are also correlations wiht physical health problems and a feeling that nothing a person does will affect their health.

Knowing the Signs of Learned Helplessness

Imagine this situation, one of your team members or maybe the whole team, has shut down. They are doing the minimum. They are asking you what you want when a decision needs to be made. Their body language shows they have withdrawn. Their arms are crossed and they are protecting their front. Maybe their head is bowed too. They might even seem to have frozen.

These are all defensive mechanisms that can tell you when someone is fearful or dejected. These signs of fear can also be signs of Learned Helplessness.

When evaluating for Learned Helplessness, watch for signs of pessimism.

The key to Learned Helplessness in humans is the person’s “explanatory style”. It’s how we habitually explain to ourselves why events happen to us. Someone with a pessimistic explanatory style can fall victim to Learned Helplessness more easily.

According to Martin Seligman, there are three components to explanatory style:
1. Personalization — the extent you believe you are the cause of events or that outside forces are the cause.
2. Permanance — how much you feel that the situation can change in the future or will always stay the same.
3. Pervasiveness — belief that this event is contained to one situation or does it apply to everything that happens to you.
Each one of these attributes has a spectrum for each person. We often use different explanatory styles for different settings as well.

Who is Most at Risk?

The people most at risk for Learned Helplessness are those who have received the equivalent of the shock treatment with no escape. At work we choose which parts of our personal lives we share. As a manager, you may have no idea what lousy experiences your employees bring with them from the past. But, sometimes you hear stories or references to bad experiences. These can cue you to watch for negative explanatory reactions so you can act with affirmation.

Some experiences and situations that can lead to negative explanatory styles:
• Growing up with abuse or over-controlling parents
• Previous bosses that did not allow idea exchanges
• Failures, especially if in a low control situation
• Learning disabilities
• Minorities

What to Do if You See Learned Helplessness in Your Staff

By understanding the phenomenon of learned helplessness, as managers we can watch our own actions to make sure we aren’t creating this feeling in our employees. We can even help break people out of the cycle if they have fallen into it. If we see learned helplessness happening in our workplace, we can take steps immediately to change course and not let it take hold.

If you’ve got someone on your team or a whole team that is feeling like Eeyore, take action quickly to promote healthy team function. Feeling part of a successful team will do wonders to bring up the spirits the person feeling helpless and will ripple out to the team at large.

  1. Promote an ‘optimistic explanatory style’ on your team

Help shake off those feelings of helplessness by hitting the three factors of explanatory style. Hearing a leader talk about how they see the events positively will have a big impact, even if you don’t see it on their faces in the moment.
• Personalization — point out how outside factors affected events
• Permanence — show how things have changed in the past and can change in the future, that everything changes, always
• Pervasiveness — get them to think about how this is an isolated situation and not an example of how things always go with examples of other situations that have been different

2. Build a sense of purpose for your whole team

Take a deep look at the vision of your team. Make sure it resonates with all of your team. If they are not all totally committed to the purpose as shown by their actions, not their words, start fresh and have your group co-create their purpose. Be there to guide and ensure it aligns with your divisional goals but leave it up to the group to decide how it is written.

3. Give people control

You are in this situation because one or more people feel they have no control. It’s time to take a hard look at yourself and see how much control you actually give them. Are you addicted to being right? Do you have to have it your way because you know best?

If so, you are robbing your employees of valuable learning opportunities and confidence building. And, you are robbing yourself of the added brain power that could be making your ideas better. Instead, put people in situations where they have control and show them they have a choice. As one manager said, “allow your employees to shoot holes in the boat ‘above the water line’”.

4. Be open to each employee and really hear them

In addition to control, people aren’t feeling heard or like they can even speak. This is another opportunity for self-reflection. Do you speak more than you listen? Do you ask people what they think before your give your opinion or direction? Do you really listen, or do you wait to talk while they are speaking? Do you search for what is right in what they are saying to build from there? Or, do you look for what is wrong so you can correct them?

When you hear their thoughts, look for everything you can agree with and start from there. Wait to address any issues until later. It will be most empowering if issues appeared over time and the employee could come to the same conclusion without you telling them what to do. Let go and explore the possibilities with them. Give time and space to the project for healing to occur (even if you are on deadline).

5. Make sure each person has a clear path forward for their work

It is essential that each employee knows how to do the work right now. So often, employees are sent off to accomplish something without any idea how to actually do the work. Sit down with them and map out how to approach the work. Of course, get their ideas first.

But, you might find that they are stuck and don’t know where to start. Be sure to guide their thinking without telling them what to do. Walk shoulder to shoulder with them through it until they gain their confidence. Even if it means having 15 minute check ins everyday.

6. Make sure everyone has clear picture of what success looks like

Each team member needs concrete goals for each project. Take some time to co-create specific, measurable goals so that your employees can know when they have succeeded. On a simple project, this might take 5 minutes. For now, do it with every project no matter how minor to establish small wins.

Without a clear picture of success, you are leaving it up to each person to apply their own metrics and attributional style to determine whether they have done well. You can imagine that if you have Learned Helplessness going on that they might completely brush off accomplishments with negative attribution.

7. Don’t let any one team member melt into the background, ask for their opinion and get them engaged

That person who isn’t speaking up is at most risk for Learned Helplessness. It can be easy to sit back and ruminate about how ‘no one wants to hear what you have to say anyhow’, particularly when confidence is low.

Being excluded is a universal fear for humans. People will form networks and exclude others as a coping mechanism. The person that is being excluded lives in a fear state and will create a story in their head about why they are being excluded that is usually much worse than the reality.

By engaging everyone, listening, and finding what you can use from their thinking, you’ll combat the effects of exclusion and learned helplessness. And importantly, you will show the rest of your team that you care about everyone’s opinion. This will encourage their ability to listen and respect each other’s opinions. Some people need encouragement that others want to hear what they have to say before they will speak up. This goes for one-on-one meetings too.

8. Create small wins — for the group and for each person

It’s important to create small successes. When feeling helpless, having success at an easy task can make larger tasks seem more approachable. When someone is feeling down, it can be hard for them to feel capable to do anything. Breaking a project down into smaller bites can create small wins.

It’s important to think about wins for both the group and each person that is feeling helpless. Being part of a successful team feels good and can warm the spirits of the people feeling helpless. But, without personal wins, the person feeling helpless can still write it off as “all the other people are good but I am still a loser”.

9. Celebrate the positive to make it sink in

Celebrate the wins so that the positive really sinks in. Our brains have a bias for negativity. This strong influence was important for human evolution but can get in the way in today’s world.

What this means for you as a manager is that you have to make a big deal about positive things and celebrate them often. It doesn’t take a party to celebrate a win but the more emphasis you give it, the more likely that positive will set into memory. A good rule of thumb is that your team members need 6 times more positive reinforcement than negative (all the time, not just when they are struggling).

10. Never do their work for them

Trust is a two way street, if you don’t trust your employees, they are going to have a hard time trusting you. Without trust on a team, it will be hard to quell the fear that drives the Primitive Brain right back to fight or flight and away from good thinking.

When you are having learned helplessness affect your team, you might not be getting good work out of your employees and feel like you have to do the work yourself. Step back and look at how you can build trust and partnership to tear down the walls of fear. Only then will they be able to open up their thinking to do better work.

This is a good time to take a look at how you are preparing your employees for their tasks. Are you setting out clear objectives? Have you really thought through what you are looking for? Are they inspired for the project? Do they have a clear path and vision of success? If you aren’t getting what you want, always look at your preparation first.

Then, look at your vision of success for the project. Does it have to be your way? Are you sending them back for revision when it’s just a matter of style? Consider letting go and letting the employee go with their style. Referring back to shooting holes in the boat, is it above the water line? Challenge yourself to let go more and have it your way only when it really matters.

11. Keep at it, don’t give up on your people

Undoing the harmful thinking patterns of Learned Helplessness can take time and commitment, dependent on how long it’s been going on and the relative health of your team. You owe it to your team to stick by them and see how they can grow, especially if you have unwittingly been the cause of the Learned Helplessness. The moment where you and your team can overcome a great difficulty is powerful. You can all be stronger for it.

Even a couple of positive experiences can help your employees deal with stressors in a more productive way. And, you can encourage a positive attribution style by modeling it yourself and coaching your staff through rough spots.

As your team develops the ability to distinguish what was their contribution to the issues and what was not, they will feel less stress and anxiety. Their opportunities for improvement will be more clear. And with greater resilience, they will have more enthusiasm for taking future risks in their thinking and actions, resulting in more creativity. A safer environment emotionally for your employees will also translate to higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to their jobs and company.

The good news is that Learned Helplessness is not only avoidable, it’s curable. People can bounce back from defeat with remarkable resilience. By avoiding this damaging phenomenon, your team can feel free to speak up and express their diverse ideas — ideas that could lead to game changing improvements for your business. When you have all the brains in the room working on a problem rather than listening to just one voice and agreeing, the potential for creative solutions rises exponentially. Your team members can feel stronger, more engaged and more confident — all from the ability to feel heard and valued.