Learned helplessness in the workplace


If your staff are not performing, promote them!

It has been proven in the past, whether at a conscious or unconscious level, some individuals who have demonstrated learned helplessness within their role have been promoted into a managerial position.

Learned helplessness, as coined by Martin Seligman in 1965, is a condition of not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless…

Within the workplace learned helplessness can be demonstrated when an individual doesn’t want to be involved in a task or project; this being due to past negative experiences around the task being asked of them.   The individuals may get involved with the task and are likely to carry out the same routine as before, regardless of outcome and of course this often leads to the same outcomes.

Within the workplace learned helplessness can be a route to management.

Surely not? I hear you ask. Indeed it has been proven in the past, whether at a conscious or unconscious level, some individuals who have demonstrated learned helplessness within the role have been promoted into a managerial position.


Case Study

Joe had been with the company for 12 months when a new piece of software was introduced to the department. The new software was pivotal to the department’s success. It was the key piece of software that pooled together information from all the departments within the company.

Joe had always shied away from using computers; he was reasonably comfortable with emails and the run-of-the-mill Office suites. However, Joe had struggled with learning new applications since his school days.  He always considered himself to be a technophobe and not particularly computer literate.  He knew that the new software would cause problems, he knew it was going to be stressful and that he would get it wrong, he knew he would be receiving negative feedback from his manager, he knew that the team would be annoyed and impatient with him.  He felt helpless and frustrated and the roll-out had not taken place yet.

As the software was being rolled out to the department, the team were receiving a presentation/training.  (How often does that work out?) Joe knew what his problem was, he didn’t like Change, he loved process and computers never do the same thing twice!

Back at his desk and with the old system no longer accessible, Joe had no alternative but to use the new software.

And so it began…

Armed with his cheat-sheet Joe input his log-in details, it didn’t work; he kept trying with the same username and password and eventually gave up.  He sat there just staring at his PC.  Joe’s manager came along and could see Joe was not actively doing anything, and asked what was up, then showed Joe where to set-up his new account on the software.  Joe knew he would be hopeless.

Next up, Joe looked to add a product to the database, he checked the cheat-sheet and followed the process, again things did not go according to plan; and again, his manager came and showed Joe how to carry out the task.

This went on and on, with the manager continuously showing Joe what had to happen.  Joe’s manager was getting frustrated; the software was new, yes.  However, it was user friendly and although the processes were different, they were better, less labour intensive and with better end results.  Joe just would not or could not see this.

Joe was right; the team were getting frustrated, they needed all hands on deck and Joe was not stepping up.

Workplace Learned helplessness in full swing.

What next…

With the whole department to support on the software transition and introduction of new processes and procedures, Joe’s manager did not have the time to dedicate one-on-one time to Joe. Therefore, he made the decision to remove Joe from the task and assigned Joe the role of monitoring the system output, which lead to Joe monitoring the processes. After a short period of time this became Joe’s unofficial new role, Joe was seen as the Department expert, even though he rarely if at all touched the software. Joe’s team were frustrated with the decision; there were grumblings of “rewarding someone for doing a lousy job”, “maybe I should be incompetent at my role and I will get a cushy little number” and so forth.

As time passed and the team became larger and more productive, it became apparent that there was a requirement for a supervisor to assist the manager. As Joe was already assisting with the monitoring of the system and processes it seemed a natural fit (hear, easy, not much thought put into the decision) to give Joe the role, this time formally and with monetary recognition.

And the grumblings from the team got louder…

In this situation where Joe’s learned helplessness came in to play and his manager did not have the time to manage this, Joe’s career was expedited.  He was rewarded for showing no initiative, for not being open to new things.  For giving up before he got started.

Was there a happy ending?

A manager must deal with these situations and not reward unacceptable behaviour.


Steps for Managing Learned Helplessness

  1. Recognise when Helplessness is a Habit

There will be times when members of your team and yourself will feel helpless when carrying out tasks. This is natural, we were not born experts. Your job as manager is to recognise when helplessness has become either you are or a member of your team’s habit. Some of the signs will be that you or the individual will instantly come up with excuses why they are unable to carry out a task. The excuses will be communicated before any real explanation or trials have been had. If this is the case, it’s time to address the issue.

  1. Make the Time

When you recognise this in yourself or others, it is time to make time to address the problem. Do not sweep this under the carpet in the hope that you or the will magically buy in to the new task. You as a manager must address this immediately, ensuring that your team member understands that this is unacceptable behaviour.

  1. Development

When addressing these issues ensure that you have a development plan in place for the individual. A habit is created over time and through repetition, to undo a habit it’s generally replaced by a new one. Developing the individual into an I can do mindset involves attitudes, behaviour and skill set changes. This is not always going to be answered by a one day off-site training programme.

  1. Misconduct vs Capability

If after all the interventions, and your team member persists in being helpless with in the role it is time to face facts and asked the question is this a misconduct or a capability issue? You will find a lot more on the ACAS site, acas.org.uk. However, if you have as a HR department, it would be worth checking out the internal policies.

  1. Reward the Performers

Habits are often formed through repetition and overtime, what often will drive a negative habit is the lack of deterrents or constraints. As you will ever read from the above, Joe was rewarded for his learned helplessness. Ensure that you frequently (only when deserved) give praise and reward (does not have to be a monetary value) to those who are performing their job well. I often quote “staff get paid to do their job, they get praised and rewarded for doing more”.

  1. Call me to find out more

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