Flourishing Culture

It’s Hard Work But It’s Worth It

July 5, 2018

Here’s a picture of my dog Petey. He likes to watch the world from my front porch. Notice his leash. He is a rescue and when I brought him home from the shelter four years ago, he ran away a lot.  So, I tethered him to keep him safe. Now, he simply sits in this spot whether he is tethered or not.  Watching him the other day reminded me of Marty Seligman’s experiments in learned helplessness and prompted me to write this blog. 

Whereas the notion of learned helplessness started with experiments on dogs, it is now used to describe a mental state in people. The state of learned helplessness comes about when people experience repeated painful and/or unpleasant situations and over time, become incapable or unwilling to avoid similar situations even if they can be avoided because they believe they have no control over the situation.

Through my work with organizations, I have observed a lot of learned helplessness. I have seen and heard stories from people who have become apathetic and lost their motivation because experience has taught them there is little to nothing they can do to improve things at work.  To me, learned helplessness translates to wasted human potential and it’s a big reason why I do the work I do. 

The diagnosis of learned helplessness comes about while studying an organization.  In my experience, the condition has not been identified when you are asked to come in and work with a group.  Rather, organizational leaders realize there is a problem. They might be undergoing a loss in productivity or dealing with a disengaged workforce and they request the services of someone like me to help them identify the cultural root cause.  It is in talking to people and asking them to share their observations and stories about what it is like to work in the organization that the condition of learned helplessness is revealed. It’s through hearing comments such as, “We tried that and nothing happened;” or “We would bring this complaint up over and over in meetings and our complaints fell on deaf ears;” that you begin to understand the degree to which people feel powerless.

There might be those of you who read this who might think, “Perhaps I can’t motivate my workforce because they are suffering from learned helplessness.”  If so, you might be wondering what you can you do about it. I believe it is essential for you to consider these three questions before you move to action:

1.     Can you go the distance? Conducting an assessment creates expectations amongst your ranks that something is going to happen.  People become invested in the process, viewing the opportunity to share their stories in focus groups as “Someone is finally listening.” If there is no follow up and follow through on the findings, you have made a bad situation worse.  Can you commit to the process, no matter how negative the results?

2.     Can you commit to doing things differently? Leaders have to own the culture.  If the cultural root cause is a workforce that feels helpless to improve their lot at work, you have to examine what it is you are doing to contribute to this condition.  And, this needs to be done with leaders at all levels of the organization.  Any inconsistencies can undermine your best intentions and fuel perceptions that, “Yeah, they say they want to improve things around here but it’s just business as usual.” Leaders need to do a lot of internal work and change themselves first before they ask their workforce to change. Are you ready and willing to do this work?

3.     Can you let go of the notion that you have all the answers?  All too often, organizations try to solve motivation problems with extrinsic rewards.  Even though people like ping pong tables, gift cards and lunches, these approaches will only take you so far.  The better approach is to create the conditions where your workforce feels intrinsically motivated to make a difference: setting up task teams and empowering them to solve problems.  It was Einstein who said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Are you willing to widen the circle of involvement and provide your workforce with the time and resources to be leaders of change? 

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then you are ready to take the plunge.  The process will be long.  There will be challenges and pit falls along the way. But, change is possible if you commit to it and do the hard work to make it happen. Dr. Seligman also writes about learned optimism – that catching ourselves, monitoring our patterns, and making intentional choices can lead us to a more positive mental state. It’s through consistent efforts over time that you can transition your workforce from one that feels helpless to one that is flourishing and high-performing.


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