People who Believe They Have No Control Act as if They Don’t Matter
People who believe they have no control forfeit their power and act as if they don’t matter.
- Waits for instructions.
- Rejects creative solution-seeking.
- Avoids risk.
- Gives up quickly.
- Complains when results disappoint.
When you try to change things but everything stays the same, eventually you give up.
Three steps to helplessness:
- Belief that things won’t change. “Nothing ever changes.”
- No effort to create change. “What’s the use?”
- Change never happens. “See. I told you things don’t change.”
Leaders propagate helplessness by rejecting suggestions without being curious, punishing responsible mistake-making, and protecting the status quo at all cost.
Two things happen when leaders propagate helplessness. The compliant go along. Everyone else looks for an exit.
The language of helplessness:
- I can’t.
- I tried and nothing changed.
- It won’t work. (Said before trying.)
- That’s just the way it is.
- Nothing ever changes.
- I’ll never be good at … .
- I’m going to fail.
- It won’t matter.
- I’m lousy at … .
- Why bother?
Foolish leaders teach people how to be helpless. Wise leaders focus on things within their control.
Perhaps the most important question in leadership isn’t, “What should we do?” Perhaps it’s, “What do we control?”
A long history of helplessness is a leadership issue.
Dictatorial leaders end up with compliant teams.
Highly regulated industries fall subject to learned helplessness. Governmental and healthcare are two examples where learned helplessness is highly likely.
The opposite of helpless is powerful.
How are you encouraging and releasing the power of others?
- Measure and evaluate performance with forward-looking optimism. Ask two questions,
- “What would you like to do to improve?”
- “How can I help?”
- Expect responsibility. When someone complains, ask, “What have you done about that?” If they haven’t done anything, employ #3.
- Generate options and give the power of choice to others.
- What would you like to do about this?
- And what else might you try? (Generate options.)
- Which option would you like to try first?
- Apply consequences both positive and corrective. Every time you ignore performance, you drain power from your team.
How do leaders propagate learned helplessness?
How might leaders give power to others?
*I relax my 300 word limit on weekends.
This post reminds me of a saying… “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” Unfortunately as you suggest Dan, this is learned helplessness propagated by leaders who surround themselves with “yes” people. Yes people live in fear of losing their jobs. This is prevalent in government organizations where they accept the status quo. Regardless,hiring the right CEO is critical. One who puts people first. One who is prepared to be challenged without repercussions. Who is not afraid of 360 degree evaluations and one who looks to empower others. True power is having it and choosing not to use it.
Thanks Caro. Love where you took this. Fear seems to be both the cause and result of helplessness. Leaders who live by fear and cause others to be fearful end up with teams that feel helpless.
Successful leaders make others feel powerful, not weak.
In highly regulated industries, “success” has a different definition: it’s not important that you win (improve, progress), merely that you never, ever lose.
There is no interest in doing things better. What you are looking for is having the same thing done the same way, every time. Never mind whether it’s efficient/effective/innovative. All that matters is compliance with regulation.
In these situations, initiative is usually punished, because process is what matters, not results.
The idea that you will thrive by asking for forgiveness rather permission will last until the first time you try it.
Thanks Mitch. I’ve seen the pressure you explain. I’ve also seen leaders who have the political savvy to challenge the status quo in highly regulated environments.
It’s not necessary to challenge everything. For example in the airline industry, you shouldn’t challenge established procedures while you’re piloting a plane on a standard route under standard conditions.
I think the ability to separate between things that shouldn’t be challenged and things that should is useful. The problem is when people learn to be helpless it seems to permeate most of what they do.
But, I’ve seen fearful leaders whose main goal was to fly under the radar and take home a paycheck. The idea of making something better offends them.
A leader who was influenced/trained under bad leadership propagates helplessness.
Thanks Gerry. Helpless leaders develop helpless leaders. Or those leaders leaders leave the organization.
How does this differ from an employee that does not buy into the mission?
Thanks Linda. Someone who doesn’t buy into the vision but remains in an organization may be a disruptive rebel, a saboteur, or a hanger-on. (If they knowingly reject an established mission.)
I wonder if someone who doesn’t buy into the mission might also exhibit helplessness? If not helplessness, then anger. My understanding of learned helplessness leads me to separate the fearful from the angry.
After five years of unemployment and constant search for job I fully acknowledge and recognize these symptoms. After hundreds of rejections my self image has suffered a lot and even the smallest success (or negative experience, for the matter) seems and feels enormous. THanks for the excellent recap, which can be applied to all situations in which one feels inadequate and unwanted!
Hey jormap. Your comment is heart wrenching. All I can say is I surely hope your situation turns around for you. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Everyone has a place in this world, continue your path you will find your way!
Never give up belief in yourself, try and try again till you find an option!
I’m in government, and boy did you nail it. My only add is that when we DO get wise leaders who want to empower employees and instigate change, they become discouraged with the helplessness and pessimism they encounter and then THEY look for the door. It takes wise leadership not just from the top, but from engaged employees throughout the agency. Leadership can happen at all levels. I’d like to acknowledge that in order to succeed in generating change, we need to make it safe for employees to take on leadership roles themselves. But because their performances are being reviewed by middle management, the change and new roles need the buy-in of the middle management team. In government, this tends to be the folks closest to their pension dates who may have a lot to lose if the change fails.
Wow! Thanks for jumping in today, Riley.
Leadership can take place at all levels. One thing that came to mind is the power of encouraging our leaders when they work to make change rather than simply complaining.
Be thankful. Ask, “How can I help?” Honor their efforts. Encourage them when things go slow.
Very timely post for me, Dan. As one of the top execs in a very small college, I find it easy to lapse into defeatism in our particular situation. For me, an important distinction is emerging: There is a critical difference between “Change is not possible” and “Change without risk is not likely.” Sure praying for wisdom in how to proceed without taking foolish risks.
A special thanks for the pointers on how to empower and increase accountability at the same time: for myself and my people.
Thanks Doc. It’s so great when one of these posts hits someone at the right time.
It’s unfortunate the accountability has such a negative feel. Perhaps it feels bad because our minds go to the worst possible scenario. Many of us enjoy meeting expectations. 🙂 We’re motivated by achieving. But, it’s pretty hard to be motivated by achievement when no one notices our achievements.
Excellent post. I plan on using this post at the next training session I am doing for our leads and supervisors. Thank you!
Thanks Kristi. Best wishes for your future training.
Dan, you need to compile all your daily blogs into one or two books! I love your insight and wisdom. Thanks so much for all you do!