Leads to lack of accountability

We might be familiar with employees who are not engaged, accountable and performing at work. Their aura vibrates a form of helplessness and perhaps even hopelessness. We wish we could infuse them with life zest, energy and motivation, but everything we try appears to have no effect on them. Like a flat ball that has no spunk to bounce around.

These are all symptoms of a concept called “learned helplessness”. The person has, over time and through experience, learned to become and act helpless. They have surrendered to the belief that whatever action they take nothing will change and have given up trying to control the situation. This is a choice they have made, even if it has often been made subconsciously. The person adapts this type of thinking style to everything in their life, thinking that if it is true in one area it will be true in all others.

Once a person makes regular justifications as to why bad things happen to them, they seek and find reinforcement in their external environment. This naturally leads to continuous failing or lacklustre outcomes which reiterate the thinking pattern. I think you get the gist of the vicious circle.

Now, let’s look at this in the work environment. Leaders aim to get the best outcome when it comes to the performance and productivity of their workforce. In most companies there are usually three sets of workers: one lot who are all fired up and self-motivated, another who have their ups and downs with engagement, and a third group who seem to be totally disengaged.

With the last group, nothing anyone does excites, motivates or inspires them. Perhaps they have learned to become helpless because they feel that anything they do will fail and that they have no control over work matters. As a leader we might not understand this behaviour and feel that it isn’t true, but maybe there is some truth in it. The person could have had a leader before your time who instilled this thinking in them or perhaps we might even be the culprit. As a way of an example, leaders often ask their teams to come up with solutions or innovative ideas, but when presented to their leader the idea has little value. Ignoring the workers’ ideas over time makes them realise that their ideas have no value and therefore any suggestions made are disregarded because the leader will make the final decision. Do this a few times with your team and they will give up, and not try to be innovative or take accountability.

Leaders might create learned helplessness in their employees without consciously realising it. The result is that workers sidestep any form of accountability or taking ownership; the things leaders need and want from their employees. If we can learn to become helpless can we learn to reverse this? Can we unlearn it? The answer is yes and we can look at ways to do exactly that.