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Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

The dogs were put into a small enclosure and electrically shocked. Yes shocked. Deliberately. For you animal lovers it was but a mild shock. A few of the dogs, as expected, immediately leaped over a small divide and escaped the discomfort. However, many did not. They simply lay there whimpering and whining. Why would intelligent dogs do this? It baffled the researchers. People also do something akin to this. Pilots also sometimes “salute and stay mute” in a cockpit or safety meeting. Why do people just give up, or worse despair and moan, in a workplace, and what can we do about this? In Crew Resource Management we refer to this as the hazardous attitude of resignation. It turns out we have learnt a lot from those dogs. We can overcome the consequences of resignation. Both as individuals and as organisations.

Martin Seligman is sometimes referred to as the father of positive psychology. Interestingly he started with studies of learned helplessness, investigating psychological anomalies such as the above case in dogs. While his work was ultimately aimed at an individual’s well-being, it can also I believe, be meaningful applied to an organisations well-being. Is our organisation suffering from this? Do you know many people in the workplace who simply sit there, or even worse, simply sit there - and whine? Before we examine healthy behaviour, let us consider the pathology of workplace despair, or a “there is nothing we can do attitude”.

Seligman indicated that despair in an individual is characterised by a person who views problems as personal, pervasive and permanent. The dreaded three Ps of damaging self-talk that leads to despair. Let’s run through it briefly with an example of how a despairing person may respond to failing a test, let’s just make it a math test. The despairing person views the failure as personal: I’m all to blame. I’m not good at maths. They view the problem as pervasive (as applying to all areas of their life). I’m not good at any subject. Thirdly they view the problem as permanent. I’ve never been good at this and I’m never going to be good at maths, regardless of how I try. Despair leads to resignation and resignation to inaction. This plays out badly in the workplace and especially in the cockpit.

Organisations or departments can despair in much the same way as people too. You may hear at work in your department,

  • Its personal. “We can’t do anything to improve and have no money for training”, or:

  • Its pervasive. “The whole organisation is in collapse and no one has money for training anywhere”, perhaps even:

  • Its permanent. “It’s been like this for ever and it’s never going to come right. We are never going to have money for training again”.

This leads to despair - and inaction. And within inaction lie the greatest risks.

So, how do we deal with this? We need to directly address both the attitude issue and the consequence of inaction. Let’s deal with our attitude and that of colleagues first. Martin Seligman encouraged his despairing patients to always and immediately dispute negative thoughts with facts disputing issues as being personal, pervasive or permanent. Let’s look at that math test example again.

You could respond with disputing self-talk by saying “The teacher was not inspiring and gave poor guidance on the areas to study for the exam. The textbook was not particularly good or relevant, and I was really tired from other work commitments which I had to attend to. In other words, it’s not completely all me. The cause is not all personal.

“I haven’t worked at my maths and was unable to prepare for this exam because of important work. I was only able to do 5 hours of preparation. If I did more I could definitely have done better. I am also very good at English and did really well at the English exam. There are lots of other things I do well”. The poor outcome does not pertain to all areas of my life.

“I have done well in tests before and I can do well in maths in future, especially if I give myself time to prepare and am well rested”. This failure is not permanent.

We need to dispute negative talk both in ourselves and, for our organisations' good, in our colleagues. And when it come the treatment we get from our colleagues; we don’t generally get what we want - we get what we tolerate. Whining starts as an infection but, uncontested, it ends as a disease.

To fight big problems, start with small actions. Yes, small actions. Small actions require overcoming minimal inertia and get the ball of action rolling. Jim Collins refers to this as the flywheel for success. It’s not what we want to do, that we should ask, but what can we do. Actually, it’s what small thing can we do first to get the ball of action rolling, that is really useful.

One small thing which adds huge value to safety, is to brief. NASA and its test pilots will tell you that the less you fly, the more you should brief. And they landed on the moon successfully, without ever having done it before. So how should one brief. Here one can learn from the best, interestingly it’s not pilots – it’s probably special force operations teams. They brief actions for all eventualities, and that maybe the real reason they are so good. A good briefing has a primary plan, which we pilots might call normal procedures and could involve departure and approach briefings. A great briefing however always has contingency plans. We pilots fulfil this by conducting missed approach procedure and emergency procedure briefings.

The essence of a contingency briefing is “if this - then that”. The more applicable “if this” situations, you can identify for each mission, and provide a good response to, the better your briefing. Think “If the engine, if the fuel, if the weather, if the warning light, if the runway changes. etc.”

Something worth doing it generally worth doing often. One could brief on so many different things, especially when we are unable to fly or train as often as we would like. Given the time available, do we a brief as well and often as we could?

The dogs which just lay down and whimpered, turned out to be animals that through a mistake in an earlier experiment, had been unable to escape the shock. Now they no longer tried, even though escape was not just possible, it was easy. They gave up in despair. They didn’t believe they could do anything. They then failed to take any action. Even a small action, which could have helped them so much.

If you feel discomfort with safety at work don’t whimper. Check your attitude, dispute despair with facts and take small actions that require minimal energy, wherever you can, to get proactivity going. Look at what we all can do and then take action. Small actions. Often. Consider an “if this, then that”, contingency briefing on organisational despair: “If I hear negative talk, I dispute it, immediately. If I can’t train enough, I brief more”.

Why do this? Do this because proactivity always proceeds and predicts productivity. Do this because positive organisational talk and meaningful action, even if small, often repeated, will improve both the organisational attitude and outcome - and avoid shocking results.


More articles by Kevin Donnellan:

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John Arkley
John Arkley
Oct 31, 2020

Very interesting article. Certainly a great deal of truth. Albert Einstein is credited with the definition of insanity as doing the same thing every day and expecting the result to be different.

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