Posted: 11 May 2022

What is learned helplessness and how can you, as a manager, ensure you are not enabling this behaviour? Read on to hear from our Learning Team on their considerations on this important concept.

What is learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is the concept that, if an individual is exposed to a problem that they initially perceive as unsolvable or inescapable physical or emotional stress, they will become apathetic and simply give up and accept their fate.

This behavioural phenomenon was brought to the attention of Martin Seligman when he initially investigated classical conditioning in animals. The experiment, which led to the coining of ‘learned helplessness’, involved two groups of dogs, that were repeatedly subjected to electrical shocks. The first set of dogs could avoid the shocks by pressing a panel with their nose. However, the second set of dogs, were strapped in and could not avoid the shocks. The dogs were then moved to the ‘shuttle box’ phase of the experiment, where they could avoid the shocks by jumping a barrier. The first set of dogs quickly discovered that by jumping the barrier they could avoid the shocks. However, the second set of dogs made no attempt to avoid the shocks, as they had learned that any attempt to escape was futile from the first experiment.

Seligman reinforced the correlation between this phenomenon and humans. When subjecting different groups of college students to uncomfortable situations, in which they may or may not be able to ‘escape’, similar results were found. The external stimuli affecting the students were loud noises or providing them with seemingly unsolvable puzzles. As with the animal study, when moved into the ‘human shuttle box’ phase the first group, who had the option initially to avoid the stimuli, quickly figured out how. However, the second group who could not avoid the stimuli in the primary phase did not attempt to avoid the noise or solve their puzzles.

Considering the above, by definition, a learned helplessness study measures the passivity of a person’s actions in a situation different from one where uncontrollability was first perceived. These experiments helped conclude that the individual’s perception of uncontrollability is the key in producing passivity, in other words; if I think ‘nothing I do can change my circumstances’ then you would conclude ‘why bother trying to do anything?’.

Understanding the signs/symptoms?

The symptoms of learned helplessness are most likely to present when an individual finds themselves in a situation they perceive to be out of their control. This is often a similar circumstance to that in which this behaviour was first embedded. The first step, is to identify what the symptoms of learned helplessness are, only then can we understand what action is possible to prevent or assist in averting this embedded response in future.

The most common generalised symptoms would be anxiety, stress and often depression. An individual who fears asking for help may be experiencing anxiety; which may present as self-doubt (should they already know this), how they will be perceived for asking, and what reaction they may receive from the person they are asking. This type of response to anxiety may be seated in previous situations they have experienced, in which they requested help but were consistently met with ridicule, flippancy or persecution; therefore, the individual has learned, no matter what they do they will not receive the response they require, which is help.

An individual who is resistant to change may feel stressed, which can lead to depression or eventual displacement, which may present as frustration, anger and physiological symptoms. If these primary displays of stress are not addressed, this could lead to the individual becoming apathetic, often depressed and generally ‘give-up’ mentally dealing with the change. This form of stress response may be due to previous situations of change, being thrust upon them without consultation or regard. An example of this would be a child constantly moving home without conversation or consideration from those who made the decision to move. The individual has learned that they do not have a say in changes that are happening, and therefore can either feel resentment or apathy towards future change.

Although these are very generalised examples, it gives an insight into how learned helplessness may present itself in colleagues and what internal factors need to be considered when working with or managing someone, experiencing this state of mind.

How might a manager enable this behaviour?

Learned helplessness can present itself in a range of ways and in varying situations, so how can a manager ensure they are not enabling this behaviour response?

The primary factor is to understand the individual you’re managing. By understanding the different communication and leadership styles and with the help of open communication, a manager can choose the best option for different situations.

As with many forms of learned helplessness, it is unlikely that the individual will state that they have an issue with certain situations. Therefore, preventative measures should be taken when performing an action that will affect any individual, such as asking them to complete a task. Have you clearly agreed with them the expectations, timelines and scheduled checkpoints? Rather than pushing your expectations onto them, by coming to a consensus and agreeing the terms, this will help to confirm what the individuals’ expectations of the level of support required are, which may assist in alleviating forms of helplessness such as fear of attempting a new task.

During the task, ensure you are adhering to the agreed terms, keep the lines of communication open and monitor the situation during regular checkpoints. This will also grant opportunity to check for any of the symptoms. If they ask for assistance, consider the kinds of support you can offer and what would be most beneficial to the individual. Often managers jump to the conclusion that relieving them of a task is the best way to deal with, or otherwise avoid, the behavioural response. However, this may be detrimental and inadvertently enable their response for future situations. When they are given a task, they will ask for help but not attempt to push themselves to learn, as they’re aware that eventually the task will be taken off them in any case, so why try? The best way to understand the assistance they require is to actively listen to their needs and provide them with the opportunity to contribute and really feel like they have control over the situation. Once we foster this kind of open, supportive and understanding method of managing learned helplessness, we can begin to see individuals flourish and often behavioural patterns begin to change with this newly reinforced sense of control.