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Learned helplessness: how we can be conditioned to relinquish control

We hear it all the time, things like: “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,” or, “What’s the point, we won’t be allowed.” They are frequent objections in almost every workplace. But is a static approach to past problems or negative experiences stunting our development of resilience and adaptability? Dr Martin Seligmann’s model of learned helplessness certainly suggests so.

Learned helplessness is a mental state that occurs when an animal – or person – is subjected to an unpleasant or aversive stimulus that it cannot escape from, or is unable to stop, even though it might be physically possible to do so. Building on Pavlov’s research into classical conditioning, positive psychologist Seligmann discovered the phenomenon in 1967 by experimenting on three groups of dogs. (NB. laws on animal experimentation have changed since then, and GDAW does not endorse the precise nature of Seligmann’s method.)

The first group of dogs were given small electric shocks, but were able to press a panel with their nose to make the shocks stop. The second group of dogs were given shocks as well, but had no recourse to make them stop. The third group was the control and received no shocks. The dogs in the first and third group recovered well from the experiment. However, the dogs in the second group, those that had been helpless to stop the pain, developed symptoms similar to clinical depression.

In the second part of the experiment, the dogs were placed in an enclosed box separated by a low barrier over which they could see. When the shocks were administered, all the dogs had the opportunity to easily escape the pain by jumping over the partition, and this is what the dogs in the first and third group did. But the dogs in the second group simply lay there whimpering. They had learned to become helpless.

That same mental state can be induced in humans too, and indeed it does, in academic, social and cultural systems. Think about it; if a person does particularly badly on a single maths test, they are much more likely to develop a resigned attitude that they are naturally awful with numbers. Or, if a guy gets rejected the first time he asks a girl to dance, he may never step foot on a dance floor again.

Taking the theory a step further, cognitive behavioural therapists have suggested that it is not the stimulus that causes the response, rather a thought process. Typically, it is our own belief of why something bad happened that determines our perception of what will happen next. This can be explained by Ellis’ ABC model:

Ellis’ ABC model

Emotional responses (part C) are very rapid, so we often don’t realise that there’s a thought (part B) between stimulus and response. So, when an external problem arises, a pessimistic person may well attribute the blame internally, believing that every subsequent external challenge will expose their own perceived inadequacy.

For businesses, learned helplessness can have a bit impact on everything from job satisfaction to the level of innovation that happens at work. So, why wait until an employee is depressed to tackle this issue? Why wait until it is raining to fix the roof? There are massive implications on morale in the long term. Common complaints of anxiety, depression or stress often stem from a lack of confidence to raise issues. The key lies in a progressive managerial approach to problem-solving, which should focus on promoting personal responsibility, ingraining confidence and affording all employees a degree of autonomy in their role.

If we’re helping to get best out of our workforce then we must also cultivate an environment that not only acknowledges adversity, but uses it as a performance enhancer and builder of resilience. Delegating control is a vital catalyst for an adaptable workforce. Adaptability is, likewise, crucial to navigate challenges in any organisation, particularly when it comes to coping with change management.

Alistair Fraser – head of health at Shell – has raised this issue at the Good Day at Work® Conference 2013. He spoke about learned helplessness, giving the example of those who get stressed riding the London Underground, when in fact that state of mind is a decision. The answer for Shell is to deliver resilience training in a completely flexible way – and by not being prescriptive, teams embed a problem solving approach most appropriate for their own team, and in an autonomous way.

So, even great managers can never completely stamp out the threat of anxiety or stress. The solution to learned helplessness isn’t found in sheltering people from situations where they may be likely to feel helpless. It is about learning that sometimes these responses are appropriate and that, usually, there is a practical action we can take to quickly move through an issue, one that is entirely within our control.