A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
September 28th, 2014 by William

Learned Helplessness

Have you ever heard anyone in your workplace say something like, “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work” or “What’s the point, they’ll never let you do that?” If so you are hearing people who have what is known, in psychological terms, as “learned helplessness.” The “learned helplessness” phenomenon can permeate the culture of an organization. Like a spreading infection, management passes on learned helplessness from person to person, group to group and level to level. Eventually the standard response to any initiative is some variation of the above statements.

Learned helplessness occurs when someone is repeatedly subjected to an aversive environment that they feel they cannot escape. Eventually, the person will stop trying to escape and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, learned helplessness will prevent them from taking any action.

While the concept of learned helplessness is derived from animal psychology and behavior, it applies to humans in many workplace situations. When people feel that they have no control over their job situation, they begin to behave in a helpless manner. Does you workplace seem to suffer from a general malaise or apathy? If so than the root cause may just be learned helplessness.

Recalling last week’s post, learned helplessness can help to explain why we are many times incapable of experiencing any workplace fun and happiness. Or, more profoundly, why we don’t get off our duff and look for another job when the one we’re in sucks. It also explains why, when a new job offer does come our way, many times we pass up the opportunity and decide to stay in our current hell hole of a job. We make every excuse we can think of to justify staying, like “I really like my co-workers,” or “things aren’t really that bad–they’ll get better,” or (the best of all) “I’d rather stay with the devil I know than the devil I don’t know.”

In 1967, the concept of learned helplessness was discovered accidentally by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier at the University of Pennsylvania, as an extension of their research into depression. Seligman and Maier discovered this phenomenon during an experiment with dogs. In the experiment three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs.” A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever did not stop the electric shocks (remember PETA wasn’t founded until the early 1980’s). To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently “inescapable.” Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless.

The significance of Seligman and Maier’s experience was that until then B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) had been the leading authority on behavior. Core to Skinner’s theory of “behaviorism” is the assumption that human and animal behaviors are determined by learning and reinforcement. We’ve all heard this before. Whatever the conditioning, people acquire new skills based on whether their actions prove to have a positive outcome (e.g., if by pressing a button, a rat receives food), that is the person is more likely to continue to repeat this behavior. We’ve also heard that if the outcome of the person’s conditioning is negative (e.g., if by pressing a button, the rat receives a shock), the person is less likely to repeat the behavior. That’s the popular belief.

However, Seligman’s experiment discovered that in fact a person is “more” likely to repeat the behavior if the conditioning is negative. This flew in the face of Skinner’s predictions.

In many large corporations threats (the equivalent of electric shocks) are made to all employees including “the best of the best” every day. In dysfunctional organizations rarely a day goes by that someone is not threatened with termination if they don’t perform to the arbitrary standards set by management. The whole cottage industry of the performance review process is built around this negative feedback type of behavior modification theory.

Where the typical performance review process goes bad (sort of ironically) is that many times what an employee is told during his/her performance does come as a “shock.” Thus the reason many employees experience “learned helplessness” is because management has shocked them whether they perform as directed or not. There is no escaping the shocks. Shocks are random and without relationship to behavior.

Based on Skinner and Seligman’s research, here’s the take away for those administering the performance review process: people acquire new skills based on whether their actions prove to have a positive outcome and they are more likely to repeat the (bad) behavior if the conditioning is negative. In today’s typical workplace the performance review process works under the wrong assumption–it works on the expectation that the employee will “change” if they are given negative conditioning, i.e., pointing out the employee’s shortfalls. Seligman would tell us differently. Ironically, the performance review process used universally in today’s business environment is exactly why performance doesn’t increase.

I’ve been saying this for years–the performance review must be one that is based on reinforcing the employee’s strengths and not merely highlighting his or her shortfalls. People acquire new skills based on whether their actions prove to have a positive outcome, thus the performance review must highlight the behavior that management wants to perpetuate and “ignore” the behavior they don’t want.

Organizations continue to administer the same performance review system year after year despite proof that these systems do little to increase performance. In fact as we’ve just learned a review system that attempts to shock an employee into changing their behavior actually produces the exact opposite of the intended result. Employees realize quickly that they can’t stop the shocks no matter what lever they pull, or hoop they jump through.

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