Workplace Issues

Counteracting a ‘Can’t-Do’ Attitude

Is the spread of “learned helplessness” sapping your company of its productivity? Here’s how you can tell — and what you can do about it.
Keith ButtonJanuary 2, 2018

“I’ll never hit those numbers—I don’t have the ability, and I never will.”

“Sure; I earned the promotion one time, but it was pure luck.”

“What’s the point in trying? Just face it: I’m cursed.”

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If this is the kind of “can’t-do” attitude you hear colleagues expressing — not just on a bad day, but every day — it may be that fellow employees in your workplace have become afflicted with “learned helplessness.”

A psychological phenomenon which was first identified more than 40 years ago, “learned helplessness” isn’t just a fancy label for the kind of negativity that comes and goes in every organization, ranging from toxic gossip to grumbling about undeserved promotions and nonexistent raises.

Illustration representing depression with a manSuch employees give up easily — not because they’ve run out of ideas, but because they believe that their actions won’t make any difference. Such a mindset can grow until it takes hold in many areas of an individual’s life, even if the situation that originally led to the condition — an abusive boss, for instance — changes.

“People remain frozen in their tracks because they’ve been frozen for so long,” says Mark Martinko, a professor of strategic HR management at the University of Queensland Business School in Australia.

The theory behind learned helplessness was originally developed by Martin Seligman in the late 1960s. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that dogs could be conditioned to behave as if they were helpless even in situations where they did have the power to change their circumstances.

The experiments revealed that dogs that were tethered and not allowed to escape painful, repeated electric shocks would eventually stop trying to avoid those shocks. Rather they would give up, having been convinced by earlier, unsuccessful attempts that they were helpless to change their situation. Seligman saw some similarities between the dogs’ behavior and the actions of severely depressed patients.

Similarly, a manager can induce helplessness by repeatedly asserting that the employee is incompetent, until the worker comes to believe it as well. “Over repeated incidents, eventually this person decides ‘I’m never going to be able to satisfy this person,’” says Martinko. “So the employee gives up and quits trying.”

He adds that those who tend to be most susceptible to learned helplessness have what he terms “pessimistic styles.” That means they attribute their successes to factors that are external and unstable, such as luck or chance, and their failures to factors that are internal and stable, such as a lack of ability that cannot be changed.

Not surprisingly, optimistic personalities do the exact opposite: they attribute successes to internal, stable characteristics, such as an innate ability, while they attribute failures to external and unstable causes, like luck.

“People with pessimistic styles are usually less productive than people with optimistic styles,” says Martinko. “If a person is really pessimistic, when the boss abuses them, they think it’s their own fault, and they make an internal and stable attribution that they don’t have the ability. Those are the people that pretty much accept abuse, and almost feel like they deserve it.”

A person with an optimistic attribution style will simply shrug off a boss’s blame, and won’t believe that they are innately unable to accomplish a task, Martinko says.

When employees feel helpless, however, the company’s ability to change its corporate culture can be affected.

If employees feel “that they simply can’t do anything to improve [the company], then you get a sense of learned helplessness in the individuals,” says Jonathan Haidt, who teaches psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “That leads to disengagement — low effort and a retreat from a sense of community.”

Such behavior, in turn, diminishes the sense of community among employees, who no longer feel as if they are in it together, with a shared stake in the success of the business. “If someone is doing something that endangers the company, then it has to be everyone’s business,” says Haidt. But if employees have learned helplessness, they won’t buy in to the community-building concept, he says.

Rather than solving problems, such companies can get stuck in the depths of despair, with employees replaying a negative event over and over in their minds.

Breaking out of such “dysphoric rumination” — as the pattern has been labeled by such happiness experts as Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California Riverside — requires a healthy distraction. “In scientific terms, rumination is both a trait and a state,” says Lyubomirsky. “There definitely are some people you’d call ‘ruminators’ — they ruminate frequently, and in response to certain situations. So if something goes bad for them, where they’re experiencing negative emotions, they tend to ruminate.”

Lyubomirsky says that such behavior can be reduced by avoiding having repeated discussions about events that went badly. There’s no sense, she says “in dwelling on the same thing over and over again, [no one is] really gaining any kind of insight.”

There’s a clear payoff for companies that can stop — and reverse — the spread of learned helplessness. “If you stop and think about an unproductive employee versus a productive employee, and the difference between the two, that could give you a good idea of what it could be worth if you address the situation,” says Martinko.

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…and other tips to counteract learned helplessness.

1. Watch for the signs of learned helplessness. If employees act depressed, apathetic about their work or appearance, or have stopped making any progress in their work, they may have adopted a pessimistic attribution style. In extreme cases, counseling for depression may be appropriate.

2. Emphasize how success is possible in new situations. Show how a new situation is different from the situations that caused the learned helplessness to begin with.

3. Provide appropriate perspective. Give employees realistic information to change beliefs. Emphasize that changes can be accomplished, especially with an employee’s internal characteristics, such as ability, through training, education, and experience. Move them away from internal and stable attributions for failure.

4. Be a problem-solver. Make a point of offering up solutions for every problem you identify. Don’t simply rehash situations that went wrong. —K.B.

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