In an earlier article, we had discussed how people develop an illusion of control whereby they start believing that they can influence outcomes that are largely beyond their volitional control. A classic example of illusion of control is when people believe that their hand-picked lottery numbers (such as those based on their relatives’ birthdays) have a higher probability of success than a list of random numbers generated by a computer.
The other end of the spectrum of this illusion is equally dangerous and can lead to suboptimal behaviour as well. In this extreme, people come to believe that there’s nothing they can do to change a circumstance or an outcome and come to accept it as a fait accompli. In situations where one does have an ability to make a difference but fails to take any action because of the belief that nothing matters, the inaction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
The phenomenon, labelled learned helplessness, is defined as a person’s passivity (after several failures or negative reinforcements) even after a change in circumstances that allows success. This phenomenon was first studied in animals and later applied to human behaviour. In early experiments, dogs were immobilized by harness and subjected to electric shocks. The animals initially tried to escape from the harness, but after repeated failures they stopped trying. At this point, their harness was removed and shocks applied again. Surprisingly, the dogs continued to be passive despite the fact that they could now escape the shocks if they wanted to. They had learned to submit themselves in the face of insurmountable odds earlier in the experiment and continued to exhibit the old behaviour, failing to notice the change in their environment that allowed a different outcome.
Research has now convincingly shown that humans are very capable of exhibiting behaviour resulting from learned helplessness. In its more severe form, it manifests in clinically depressed patients, but there is growing evidence that organizational procedures and experiences can also induce learned helplessness among employees. Employees of rule-bound, bureaucratic organizations often develop a feeling of helplessness in the face of archaic, non-pragmatic rules and lose their ability to be creative in situations that demand creativity. Salespeople are also prone to developing a feeling of helplessness where they stop trying because they have convinced themselves about the impossibility of achieving the stated goal. These employees will continue to exhibit the same helplessness even when market conditions do allow exceptional sales growth.
Imagine a situation where a company makes repeated efforts at selling its products online in the early 1990s. Despite these efforts, the company fails to make its online venture profitable. The company’s employees learned over time that they cannot succeed in an online environment. Ten years later, when its management is presented with a proposal to go online, top managers may still resist the idea because of what they learned from their experiences 10 years ago. The management’s reaction to the proposal is an example of learned helplessness as it is not taking into account the changed online environment where far more people are open to the idea of shopping online. This change in circumstance has the potential to bring out a different outcome, but requires the management to be more optimistic about the venture’s success. Learned helplessness can be particularly frustrating for managers as they try to lead a group of employees that does not lack ability or talent but has simply become conditioned to contingencies that were operational in the past but may have no relevance to the current situation. Employees fail to apply their full potential, resulting in low performance and failure, which further reinforces their pessimism for future endeavours.
So, what can you do to help your employees avoid becoming victims of learned helplessness? Research shows that learned helplessness happens when a person links the negative outcome to one of the following attributions: “It’s me,” “It’ll affect everything I do,” and “It’ll never change.” Managers can identify which of these three attributions is at work and take corrective action. If the attribution is personal, then one can make a case that the outcome is a function of effort as well as chance. Thus, it is neither fair nor appropriate to put the entire blame on an individual. If the attribution is global distortion, whereby a person feels that “I am doomed and anything I try would be a failure,” then a case can be made that different tasks require different skills and failure in one task does not imply that the person cannot succeed at other tasks. Finally, if the attribution is “failure forever”, one can argue that circumstances change and the competitive landscape evolves over time. What didn’t work yesterday may just as well be a hit tomorrow because that idea’s time has come.
To summarize, one cannot change the negative outcomes of the past. But to allow those outcomes to constrain our thinking of the possibilities of the future is neither prudent nor practical.
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Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.