Learned helplessness: An organisational crisis demanding intervention

Chloe Hooper
By Chloe Hooper | 8 February 2022
Chloe Hooper.

Chloe Hooper, founder, Bare Feat: 

The frequency of perpetual change is growing. Catastrophic events are occurring all the more, challenging day-to-day conditions acclimatised as the status quo.

Approaches to change, particularly unpredictable change, are challenging at the best of times. But have we considered that whilst trying to navigate the unknowns that have presented globally, a negativity bias has settled amongst us?

Innovation and ideation are stalled by the continuous cancellations in our calendars, feelings of complacency rampaging our creatives. After all, it seems our efforts surmount, more often than not, to virtual events with more absentees than attendees.

Continuously working towards milestones that are being moved, cancelled and replanned is leading to a sentiment of 'learned helplessness. People are losing the feeling of 'purpose' within their work that organisations have invested years to establish.

Not only is this loss fuelling the great resignation of our time, but even more damaging, the view that people's work no longer matters is resonating.

I have worked with several people lately, joking all the same 'if we don't make the deadline, we can blame COVID'.

As we begin to move from pandemic to an epidemic, the resilience of an organisation, the resilience of its people and in turn their passion, will be the competitive advantage organisations strive for in 2022. 

Psychologists* describe resilience as a process and skill, something that is learnt and formed rather than an innate personality trait, a facet that is not born, but rather fostered. In contrast 'learned helplessness' emerges when people are conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it. Eventually, after enough conditioning, people will not try to avoid the pain at all—even if there is an opportunity to truly escape it.

Prior to global pandemic times, Ming-Hu Han, PhD, and colleagues, published a social defeat study during 2012 exploring a group of mice. Nestler and colleagues use the "social-defeat" model to study stress and resilience in rodents.

In this study, the mice are exposed to 'stressor' triggers and sensory cues repeated for a short time every day, for 10 days. After this time, most mice present symptoms comparable to human depression. However, a third of the mice present symptoms of resilience. As the study continues, the 'susceptible' mice start to show little signs of motivation- even to eat. Whilst the 'resilient' mice begin to thrive in their environments.

By correlation, are we considered the 'susceptible'? And if not, what separates us?

According to Nestler:

"The most important and interesting principle is that resilience is not a passive process. It's not that the resilient mice simply don't show the bad effects of stress that are seen in susceptible mice. Indeed, some of those effects are seen, but by far the most predominant phenomenon is that the resilient mice show a whole additional set of skills that help the animal cope with stress."

Whilst unbreaking, hammering waves are dismantling our most valuable assets, an organisational crisis is whitewashed as nothing more than a temporary impact of a global pandemic. This pattern of thinking enables us to believe our mindset will return at the end of the tunnel. A false flag of hope that stands to reinforce the misunderstood notion that resilience is either present in people, or it isn't.

Thankfully, resilience is not a natural gift given to the fortunate and hidden from the innovative. A resilience strategy serves its purpose most functionally as a pre-emptive practice, rather than a combative one. When our structure is conditioned and becomes adopted, the 'baked-in' approach to resilience to workplace atmosphere reaps rewards across all sectors. Instead of leveraging our assets, or amending extras with an 'add-on' approach, our readiness and ability to flex with the movements of change are enhanced.

So where do we start when it comes to building a resilient organisation?

The difference between those who are resilient and those who are susceptible to 'learned helplessness' is rooted in the way we communicate with ourselves.  To move past learned helplessness and facilitate the growth of resilience, we need to address our perceptions.

There are 3 P's in our language and mindset that need to be demolished:

  •        Permanence (temporary vs permanent). We think the problem is permanent even though nothing ever is.
  •        Pervasiveness (specific vs universal). We catastrophise and attach one problem with another. 
  •        Personalisation (internal vs external) We think there is something wrong with us.

Train yourself to identify this language used within your organisation (and in your own head) because if resilience is the goal, learned helplessness is the barrier. 

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