Combating Learned Helplessness at Work

In my experience the genesis for disengaged, disgruntled employees often begins with a psychological state known as learned helplessness. Learned helplessness happens when people stop trying to avoid punishment or to receive pleasure because they believe that NO MATTER WHAT THEY DO, THEY HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE OUTCOME.

Imagine walking down a long, flat country road, miles from any shelter, when a rain storm kicks up. You have no umbrella, and off to either side of the road is flat, open field. What are your options? You can stand still. You can keep walking. Or you can run. Does it really matter which option you choose? No. Stop, run, or just keep on walking, you’re still going to have squishy shoes and skivvies. Learned helplessness is the feeling that sets in when you believe there is no escape from the deluge, that the outcome is sealed. It makes you feel kind of helpless. And hopeless.

What does that have to do with disgruntled, disengaged employees? When employees feel that no matter what they do, the outcome will be the same, (i.e., they will fall short, they will be criticized, or their good efforts and attempts will be ignored), they stop caring and stop trying.

Then they say Whatever. Do you know what Whatever means in disengaged employee-eese?

It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s not going to be good enough. So you know what? I’m going to do just enough to get by. And when I get home, I’m going to tell the world that my boss is a jerk and my company sucks.

When people feel powerless over their circumstances, they stop trying, and sometimes they get ugly, posting things on Facebook and Twitter like these employees did–

  • Hate my job!! I want to tell my bosses how dumb they are and how meaningless this job is, then quit, and be happy!
  • Talk to anyone who works here. They’ll tell you how much it sucks.
  • Friends don’t let friends work for [insert what might be your company name here].

If you have disgruntled, disengaged employees, what can you do? Before giving up (which would be you succumbing to learned helplessness!), try these two tips:

Note: it says speed LIMIT, not speed SUGGESTION.

1. Clarify what you expect. When I worked as a residential counselor in a home for juvenile delinquents, the children were required to do basic chores. Some of these kids had never made their own beds, folded laundry, or washed dishes. How did I help them be successful in these tasks? I made simple cheat sheets and check lists for each chore that clarified the expectations.

When an employee falls short of the mark, make sure that your expectations have been clear. If you want to prevent your employees from becoming frustrated and eventually quit trying, give them a road map of what you expect. If the employee improves after you provide clear, patient feedback on your expectations, you will have created an employee who knows how to succeed, cutting off learned helplessness at its root! If the employee does not improve, it’s not likely a matter of CAN’T DO, but more a matter of WON’T DO. Either way, it’s time to apply Tip #2—

2. Provide consequences. If you’re a parent, you know that there are times that you’ve said to your kids “CLEAN YOUR ROOM!” for what seems like a hundred times before they take action. Obviously, giving an instruction doesn’t always work. Tip #1 points the way. But Tip #2–like “You’re grounded until your room is clean”–cements the change.

The employees who heard your feedback and made improvement needs a positive consequence. Use a WHIP—What you Have In your Possession! Try praise, appreciation, a smile, or a pat on the back (of the non sexual harassment variety). Applying a positive consequence breaks the cycle of learned helplessness by showing an employee that “It DOES matter what I do, and I CAN BE good enough. And my boss DOES care!”

And the employee who heard your feedback and changed nothing needs a negative consequence. Use a WHIP—verbal warning, written warning, suspension, docked pay, or anything in the category of “up to and including termination.” You can’t save everyone. Not everyone wishes to be saved. Employees who are in the terminal stages of being disgruntled and disengaged may need to hear a final message from you: “You can be disgruntled, or you can be an employee. But you can’t be both.”

Employees need to know what’s expected, and they need consequences based on what they do with that information. Allow no helpless victims on your team. Employees with great performance need to know that they are responsible for their own awesomeness, their own greatness. Let them know that you notice and appreciate it when you see them taking ownership. Give every employee the benefit of your clear expectations, and apply consequences consistently by either rewarding desired behavior or punishing undesired behavior.



0 Comments Add yours

  1. anthony says:

    I think engaged employees are the result of their managers’ abilities to create an engaging workplace. It’s strange that so many companies have neglected employee engagement without realizing that it directly influences productivity and thus increases profit. In my opinion the best thing an employer can do to keep his or her employees constantly engage is to show them that their work is meaningful and that it has some tangible results. There’s nothing that puts people off more than a dull and steady job. You would be surprised but unhappiness in the workplace where progress means nothing is often connected to health problems. According to various surveys, people with low-paying jobs and with few possibilities to make progress have a higher risk of heart disease than those who feel satisfied in their careers. I just recently read that only a small number of employees are happy with their working environment which results in increasing importance being placed on different wellness programs and even a workplace exercise regimen to increase productivity and develop a more positive attitude.

    1. scottcarbonara says:

      Thanks, Anthony. Managers certainly do have a role in creating an engaged workplace. Research backs up that employees care more / give more in an engaging environment than in a hostile or self-serving one. The best work environment is one that nurtures both the emotional and physical wellness of its members.

  2. Dr. Mesmer says:

    I was particularly offended by your suggesting “Use a WHIP—verbal warning, written warning, suspension, docked pay, or anything in the category of “up to and including termination.” In many large corporations these threats are made to all employees including “Key Contributors” every day. Rarely a day goes by that our company is not threatening us with “up to and including termination” from everything from reading and agreeing to the latest company policy statements to sickness and disability. The reason many employees experience “learned helplessness” is because “the scientist has shocked the mouse whether it performs as directed or not”. There is no escaping the shocks. Shocks are random and without relationship to behavior. Our company frequently terminates employees rated as Excellent only to send their jobs off shore to 3rd world countries. We are told by our leadership “Why should we pay you X when we can send your jobs to India and a tenth of the cost.” Put an individual in this sort of business environment for 5 years and see what happens to “discretionary” effort.

    1. scottcarbonara says:

      I hear what you’re saying, and I agree with your assessment that using punishment only is a failure. The other part of using What you Have In your Possession is this: “Try praise, appreciation, a smile, or a pat on the back (of the non sexual harassment variety). Applying a positive consequence breaks the cycle of learned helplessness by showing an employee that “It DOES matter what I do, and I CAN BE good enough. And my boss DOES care!” Leaders and companies who manage with punishment alone regardless of employee behavior, results, and competence are short-sighted, and they create the learned-helplessness that they wish to stop. Any company wanting to show a quick profit can fire or outsource half of its workforce. Wall Street loves that…for a quarter. But unless a company fosters an environment of mutual trust between employees and leadership around reaching objectives, discretionary effort will be withheld. And in the environment you described, corporate leadership should not be surprised when they have neither loyal employees nor loyal customers.

  3. Employee says:

    What should employees do when their learned helplessness is a result of the above as well as manager providing unrealistic expectations (e.g. expecting 30% of employees to manager 100% of the workload when the other 70% has been laid off, asking fresh graduates to independently handle projects of great complexity without guidance)?

    1. scottcarbonara says:

      Thanks for your question. The short answer is this: (1) clarify what you expect, and (2) provide consequences. Right now, we are working in an “employer’s market.” Those with jobs are grateful; and managers can “get away with” holding unreasonably high expectations for employee performance. I’ve heard of a managers who told a complaining employee, “If you don’t like it here, quit. I can replace you tomorrow.” I hope, though, that this practice is not the norm. You might be understandably hesitant to bring this up to your boss, but it can be done in a non-threatening way, like “I know that the business reality today is that we are all asked to do more with less. I get that, and I want to do my part. But what makes it hard is that I sometimes feel that I can’t get caught up, so I can’t even think about getting ahead of the workload. Like many people, what motivates me is the sense that I’m making progress at work, and right now, I don’t feel like I’m am doing that (expectation). I really like my job, and I want to stay here and contribute. Short of leaving (implied consequence), what can I do differently to feel like what I do makes a dent in the workload?”

      This is a conversation, not a hostage situation. And it’s a dialog, not a monologue. Is your boss reasonable enough to hear you out? If not, are you prepared to start looking for something that better meets your needs?

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