Learned Helplessness

picture of a female employee, feeling helpless and disengaged

What is ‘learned helplessness’?

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that can have detrimental effects in the workplace if left unchecked. It occurs when an individual feels that they have no control over a situation and that their actions have little influence over the outcome. This perceived lack of agency can lead to decreased motivation, poorer performance, and higher turnover rates.

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967. Through experiments with dogs, they found that subjects who experienced uncontrollable negative stimuli would eventually stop trying to avoid it, even once conditions changed to allow them to influence the outcome. This condition of learned helplessness is characterised by three main factors:

  • A perceived lack of control. The individual believes their actions have no bearing on the situation.
  • Attributing outcomes to external factors. Rather than their own efforts, the person attributes results to luck or circumstance.
  • Lowered motivation and performance. Futility leads to decreased drive and poorer results.

Some industries or workplaces that are characterised by rigid hierarchies, poor management practices, lack of employee empowerment, or a history of negative experiences may be more prone to issues related to learned helplessness.

The risks for businesses

Learned helplessness poses substantial risks for UK enterprises in several areas. Workers experiencing learned helplessness are less motivated and feel their efforts are futile, which can negatively impact productivity levels and lead to declines in output quality and efficiency.

Employees struggling with learned helplessness tend to be disengaged from their roles and the broader organisation. They are unlikely to exhibit discretionary effort or ‘quiet quitting’ as it was recently touted. When people believe their actions are meaningless, the overall energy and morale of employees decline, and it creates a dreary culture rather than an engaged, optimistic one. Employees working in such a culture are more likely to leave an organisation for other opportunities where they feel more empowered. This increase in staff turnover could prove costly to organisations.

Innovation is another area that could suffer. Creative problem-solving requires a sense of agency. Learned helplessness stifles an individual’s ability to identify and implement new solutions or process improvements.

Combatting learned helplessness

The good news for leaders and managers is that learned helplessness can be addressed. Follow these steps to reinstate a sense of role ownership, engagement and motivation in your team members.

Work colleagues solve problems togetherAutonomy

Ensure your team has the ability to make decisions about how they complete tasks and solve problems. This conveys trust and empowers them. To afford autonomy effectively, leaders and managers should start by clearly defining the organisation’s goals and objectives, providing a sense of purpose and direction. Then, demonstrate your trust in your team members—by delegating tasks and responsibilities according to their skills and strengths and allowing them to take ownership of their work.

Offer development opportunities

Start by identifying the specific skill sets needed for both individual roles and broader team objectives. Then, provide access to relevant training programmes, workshops and resources to support skill development. Additionally, create career ladders or growth trajectories that outline potential advancement within the organisation, giving your team members a clear path for their career progression.

Remember that mistakes are opportunities for growth, so don’t micromanage; instead, use setbacks as learning experiences.

This investment not only boosts morale and job satisfaction but also fosters a sense of loyalty and commitment among your employees, ultimately benefiting the entire company.

Improve communication

Create open channels for sharing feedback and ideas. Listen and respond to demonstrate that your employees’ voices will be heard.

Give your team members your full attention when they speak, ask clarifying questions, and demonstrate empathy to understand their perspectives and concerns. Create an open door policy—an environment where team members feel comfortable approaching you with questions, feedback or concerns. This encourages transparency and further builds trust.

Schedule regular team meetings to discuss goals, progress and challenges. These meetings provide a platform for open dialogue and collaboration. Also hold regular one-on-one meetings with team members to discuss their individual goals, performance and any personal or professional issues they may have.

Different team members prefer different communication channels. Use a mix of emails, in-person conversations, video calls, and team collaboration tools to ensure everyone’s needs are met. Be clear and concise in your messages; avoid jargon and communicate complex ideas in an understandable manner. Use visuals and examples when necessary.

Office team receiving feedback from team leader

Feedback and recognition

Provide constructive feedback regularly and acknowledge your team’s achievements. Feedback helps them improve, while recognition boosts morale and motivation.

Establish a feedback loop where team members can also provide input on team processes, projects and leadership practices. Use this feedback to make improvements.

Set expectations

Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations. When everyone understands their roles, misunderstandings and conflicts are reduced. Lead by example and demonstrate the communication style and behaviour you expect from your team. Remember that your employees are only human—as I mentioned above, mistakes are learning opportunities in disguise!

Making it happen

Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping the culture of any company, and it’s essential for leaders to commit to improving a poor company culture. Recognising the need for change is the first step towards fostering a healthier, more positive work environment. By committing to this transformation, leaders demonstrate their dedication to the well-being and success of their employees and the organisation as a whole. This commitment involves actively listening to employee feedback, addressing concerns, and taking concrete actions to create a culture that values transparency, inclusivity, and collaboration. It’s a long-term investment that can lead to increased employee engagement, higher productivity, and, ultimately, the sustainable success of the company.

Addressing learned helplessness requires awareness and ongoing effort, but the payoff for your organisation is immense. By taking deliberate steps to build autonomy, ownership, and inclusion, leaders can shape an engaging culture where employees are empowered, motivated, and able to apply their talents fully. The result will be greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction in service of your business goals.

Eliminating learned helplessness unlocks human potential – which is arguably a company’s most valuable asset.

Visit our YouTube Channel for our webinars, which cover a range of ways in which the Jigsaw Discovery Tool can help your company.

 

The Jigsaw Discovery Tool helps leaders to build autonomy, ownership, and inclusion in their teams, leading to an engaging workplace culture where employees are empowered and motivated. For more information, call 01924 898930. 

Related Articles