The rather intriguing idea that helplessness can be learned seemed to fit some familiar situations. Courses addressing learned helplessness have been available to our medical students for a while here where we teach. Briefly learned helplessness is:
a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”)—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.
So we have three scenarios:
1) How do we lead followers who have learned helplessness?
2) How do followers handle a leader who has learned helplessness?
3) How do we manage ourselves if we’re that leader?
None is very palatable. This goes beyond complacency to a clinical condition that can wipe out the momentum of a team. It becomes a built-in, predictable, automatic reaction to situations – apathy, gloom and even desperation.
I wonder if it can creep into organizational or group culture? In our research we came across groups that seemed to share a sense of hopelessness similar to this, often after prolonged exposure to leaders who were toxic bullies.
The key to the phenomenon as I see it, is the learned behavior that fails to resolve the condition even when the opportunity for restoration reappears. It is possible to condition yourself so negatively that each new opportunity keys an instant destructive memory from your past. Even if there was overall success in the situation you recall, where your actions were affirmed by others and good results emerged, your first flash of insight instinctively dwells only on an invalidating or unfavorable facet, because you have so conditioned yourself to allow this. You only remember that minor moment of failure in the incident. In that fatal one-third of a second you have lost any chance to break the loop. The opportunity for restoration blinks out of existence before you knew it was there. The chronic, debilitating depression noted earlier is a predictable result.
When this manifests in the leader it is a serious affair. My wife Janis and I are wrapping up a book on battered leaders that should be at the publishers in a few months. We’re discovering that when leaders are battered by followers, peers or supervisors, learned helplessness sometimes follows. Here are some thoughts:
- Surround yourself with a “circle of loving detractors” so that you have an early warning system in place.
- Keep your reality defined – test these perceptions and reactions with a true friend.
- When confronted by a situation, in the initial one-third of a second of your reaction, first do no harm – either to yourself or to another.
- Then wait two-thirds of a second and review your second recollection – it will probably be the positive one.
- Parse each situation and write a short, balanced history of what actually happened. Review this in a reality-based community.
- Recall that you can control your own response to a situation even if you can’t control its outcome.
- Practice generosity – it takes your mind off yourself.
Bottom line, when Max De Pree claims that the “first responsibility of the leader is to define reality” it may be necessary to start with yourself and not your followers.
 (There are therapeutic solutions for learned helplessness so professional help can obviously work also.)