The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman, whose works on depression prompted his theory that people would not try to escape or better a bad situation due to past experiences influencing their feelings of helplessness.
Since his initial work, Seligman used this concept as a central fixture of his ideas on authentic happiness. Meanwhile, research has repeatedly found that learned helplessness in the workplace can be a successful route to promotion.
Learned helplessness in the workplace is surprisingly common, and tends to take on a regular pattern. Due to past experiences not working out in their favour, an individual might feel opposed to participating in a project, and their preconceptions are likely to cause them to repeat their previous behaviour. Unsurprisingly, this results in a cycle of negative behaviours that produce the same outcomes each time. However, it is surprising that this sort of behaviour can be pivotal to ascending the career ladder.
After a year in his job, Joe’s work was shaken up when his department implemented an important new software that pooled the entire company’s data. Due to long-term struggles with computing that dates back to his school days, Joe resisted using computers in the workplace at all costs, but now he feared the pressure of the new system would be his undoing and bring his computer illiteracy to the forefront. He worried that his manager and colleagues would have little patience for his inadequacy, and was soon wrapped up in anxiety – and the software hadn’t even arrived yet. When the rollout occurred and the old system was scrapped, Joe found himself backed into a corner.
And so it began…
Joe’s first encounter with the new software seemed to justify all his fears. He couldn’t figure out how to login to his account, and when his manager came upon him doing nothing, helped him with this simple task. He faced similar difficulty when trying to add a new product to the database, and once again had to turn to his manager for help. It carried on like this, and Joe’s manager felt his patience wearing thin, sure that his employee was taking the advantages of the new system for granted. It was at this point that Joe realised he had been right to worry all along: his colleagues and managers were getting annoyed with his behaviour, and just like that, workplace learned helplessness was in session.
Being in charge of an entire department that was undergoing changes, Joe’s manager didn’t have the time or resources to give him the one-on-one help he really needed to make the adjustment. He decided that the best remedy for the situation would be to take Joe off of the team and assign him to monitoring the system’s output. His new status with supposed expertise in the field irritated his colleagues, who viewed the situation as Joe’s lack of ability being rewarded. Over time the team grew and the need for a supervisor emerged; the manager decided that the experience Joe had gained recently made him the easiest fit for the role, much to the criticism of his team.
Although he had been trying to make the best of a bad situation by removing Joe from his original role, the manager’s decision was thought of as special treatment by the rest of the team, causing a domino effect of anger and resentment. Clearly he had felt that plucking the underperformer out of his role and giving him another was the least disruptive way of dealing with the situation – certainly preferable to disciplinaries or even dismissal – but this move caused more harm than good, and the damage it did was companywide.
Managers must approach poor performance with caution. Nobody enjoys having to dish out disciplinaries or to let people go, when trying to correct inadequate behaviour in the workplace, the potential impact the next move could cause to the whole company should be considered. Internal relationships and morale can be severely damaged by bad management choices, and as this case study demonstrates, promotion is seldom the right answer for frustrated managers. Give time and thought to the bigger picture when dealing with poor performance.
About the author
Margo Manning is a leadership coach Margo Manning, author of The Step Up Mindset for New Managers (£14.99, Panoma Press). In the last 15 years, Margo has been delivering talks as one of the UK’s top Leadership and Management Coaches and Facilitators. Margo is the architect of the 3:2 Management Model and subsequent 3:2 Management Development Programme that is delivered and adopted within many businesses, large and small, nationally and internationally. She has worked, and continues to work, with new managers through to senior managers in companies such as Golden Sachs, Hobart Lovells, Brunswick Group, Tower Hamlets Homes, Aon, Balfour Beatty, Kantar and many more.