Learned Helplessness: How to break the cycle


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If you haven’t read my last post, you may want to go back and read about learned helplessness (LH) here.  Now that you know what LH is, it’s time to address the issue of how you might 1) identify LH and 2) break the cycle of helplessness others are experiencing.

First of all, not all people who don’t exert effort at work are “helpless”.  Some are lazy, some are frustrated, other are just stubborn or mad.  Determining the cause of this poor performance has major implication for how you should address the situation.  Therefore, the first thing you need to do is to determine if this person is LH by assessing the situation.  You do this by briefly interviewing them.  I recommend you ask them the following questions:

1) Do you feel like you’ve tried hard to complete the task you’re struggling with?
2) If you knew you would succeed, would want to work hard to complete this task well?
3) Have you experience significant frustration in trying to complete this task in the past?
4) Have you had any success at accomplishing these tasks when you’ve tried hard?
5) Do you feel like you’ve just tried everything possible and are wanting to give up altogether?
6) Is an obstacle in your way, or do you feel like you lack the necessary ability?

Note that, at times, removing an obstacle (#6) is all that you will need to do to help this person complete a task and break the cycle of learned helplessness.  Even if this obstacle is not one that other employees face, it may be the source of frustration and failure for your employee.  Simply remove this obstacle, facilitate success and celebrate the accomplishment with your employee.  At the core of Robert House’s “path-goal” theory is the notion that a good manager is one who facilitates the success of his/her employees by removing barriers.  Every good manager should be diligently “clearing a pathway” for the success of every employee.  

People responding positively to most or all of these questions (save #4) may be indicating that that they are experiencing learned helplessness.  It is important to note that we are all, at time, truly helpless.  Learned helplessness is not simply being helpless, it is when a person experienced helplessness in the past, and simply cannot see that circumstances have changed.  They may be helpless regarding a particular task, or they may generalize this helplessness to a broad array of work activities.  It is most common for people in this helpless condition to feel overwhelmed, frustrated and despondent to help from others. They are often embarrassed by feelings of failure and often dislike discussing them.  Others might express a heightened sense of anxiety or apprehension about their work.  Hence, a gentle and supportive approach is needed here.  Like depression, this condition tends to persist until the person gets the right type of assistance.

Though there is no pill for learned helplessness, there is a solution.  But what NOT to do in response to LH is perhaps just as important, so lets talk about this first. Most manager (unintentionally) respond inappropriately to a performance deficiency of this sort.  Given that this person, by definition, does not believe that further effort will lead to a successful outcome, “cheer-leading” will not work.  In fact, encouraging someone with LH to try harder is about like encouraging someone stuck under a ten ton boulder to “push harder”.  It only proves to the person that they are helplessly stuck.  In their mind, they’ve already tried every trick in the book, and no amount of encouragement will change the outcome (only highlight their failure to succeed).  They are stuck, and no amount of effort will change that perception.  So don’t “cheer-lead” fist.  Save that for when you begng to see some success!

What an individual with LH needs most is supportive help.  This help may not be like what you are used to offering.  They may need more hand-holding, and you might need to demonstrate the task for them a few time, then walk them through the process letting them get their hands dirty a little bit at a time.  When they succeed at all, encourage them and point out their successes even if they aren’t completing the entire task on their own.  Keep reinforcing the correct behaviors, carefully avoiding what they are doing wrong as much as possible.  This will build their confidence and reestablish their belief (gradually) that they can do the work autonomously.  Once they have mastered the task, celebrate and encourage!!!  Leave them to the task, but with the promise that they can call on you any time for more assistance.  You will become their hero.  Don’t be overly concerned that they will rely on you too much or too often for assistance.  Most people don’t want constant assistance, they want to feel a sense of achievement that comes from completing a task alone.

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