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When Nothing Can Be Done

“Nothing can be done about that, it’s a government regulation. This is the way we’ve always done it. If we change the way we do that, something will go seriously wrong. We don’t have the money, people, or time to improve. We’re just stuck with the way things are.”

All of these statements have some truth in them. Variations of these stories exist in every government agency and private industry group. The stories involve excuses and blame. Excuses are made for not tackling challenges or taking accountability for needed improvement. Blame is assessed to others and external circumstances, blame that allows the status quo to live another day. They can all be examples of “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness can infect organizations and individuals. It was first studied in dogs that were subjected to shocks, and, when allowed to escape the shock, the animals chose to be passive and accept the shock. They had learned not to act and failed to notice the change in the environment that would have allowed a different outcome. Further research has shown that like their best friends, humans and organizations can exhibit the same behavior.

Employees feel hopeless in the face of bureaucracy and rules. They stop being creative and follow the same mind-numbing routine. Managers stop asking for what is needed and helpful because too often the answer has been, “We can’t.” Leaders are tired of pushing for change and more resources. Even when something is possible, they feel still feel helpless and hopeless.

Martin Seligman, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says that learning helplessness happens when people in an organization no longer believe they can act to make a difference. The result for the organization is a downward performance spiral followed by decreased communication and respect for others. People spend all of their energy trying to protect themselves.

Changing learned helplessness in an organization’s culture does not happen quickly. As leaders and managers behind the desk, it’s up to us to stick our heads up, recognize the assumptions of learned helplessness, look at what we can control, and open up the escape routes.

Start by recognizing the language and behavior of helplessness: “we can’t; we’ve always done it that way; remember, they didn’t replace that position; we don’t have the money; it’s the new regulation.” Then take action to overturn the collective helplessness … one step at a time.

Every time you hear or see learned helplessness showing up, ask, “What do we have control over? What one small action could you take that would make a difference for you or our team?” Ask the person or team to create a S-M-A-R-T experiment with you:

  • S – Safe. If things don’t go well, your team should be able to continue functioning.
  • M – Modest. This is a simple, first step out of the danger zone of learned helplessness; it is not a destination where everything is “fixed.”
  • A – Actionable. The team should be able to act quickly, determine what works and what doesn’t, make adjustments, and try again … all within a week or two.
  • R – Research. It should be an experiment that gathers information for future decisions, not an experiment with the goal of improvement.
  • T – Test. The experiment should deliver information that is beneficial for overcoming learned helplessness and offering hopefulness rather than becoming a new strategy.

An example: Imagine a scenario where an organization attempts to use online employee scheduling, starting in the year 2005. The effort repeatedly fails. The organization’s employees learned over time that the online scheduling environment is a failure. Ten years later, when management is presented with a new proposal for online scheduling, they may still resist the idea because of what they learned ten years ago. This reaction to the new proposal is an example of learned helplessness. It does not take into account the changed online environment where everything from smart phones to tablets to computers could allow access to scheduling. The change in environment has the potential to deliver success. The next step is to create a S-M-A-R-T experiment on a micro-scale to see what might be possible.

In the end, the question is not, “did we meet our goal?” The questions are, “how did this experiment move us away from being stuck? How did it change our assumptions about what is possible and what isn’t?”

See the culture of learned helplessness. Look for possible escape routes. See which ones are open. Then use them.

Other Reading:
Seligman, M. (2013). “Learned Helplessness.” Oxford University Press.
Kegan, R., Lahey, L. (2012). “Immunity to Change.” Harvard Business Press.

For more on overcoming learned helplessness: Just tell me what to do!

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