How to Deal with Demotivated Employees: Learned Helplessness

Expectancy Theory
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Devayani Vyavaharkar
Student (University), Germany

How to Deal with Demotivated Employees: Learned Helplessness

🔥NEW It is easy to understand the principle of "Learned Helplessness" (LH) by imagining an elephant trainer who trains a baby elephant. The training commences by initially tying a baby elephant's leg to a post, in order to restrict its movement. The baby elephant struggles for days to escape. However, it eventually gives up. After growing up, it becomes strong enough to escape the rope. But it does not give a single try. This is because its past experiences have made it believe that any struggle would be useless.

Now imagine an employee, for example of an architectural firm, who applies considerable creative thinking to design buildings in her work. And suppose this architect receives repeated rejections and disapprovals from her superior. She might eventually stop implementing innovative ideas into her designs.

Perhaps you experienced similar scenarios in your firm? Such experiences often give rise to a mindset or feelings like, "No matter how hard I try, I have no control over changing or improving the conditions around me." The principle behind such mindset is known as learned helplessness.

What exactly is Learned Helplessness? Introduction

The term was coined by psychologist Martin Seligman. Based on animal studies, Seligman found that they were prone to giving up hope if put in an environment where adverse outcomes were beyond their control. The same principle has wide application in explaining human behaviour:
  • A belief that one has no control over the situation.
  • Individuals giving up and accepting their fate as it is.
  • Even if one gets an opportunity to take charge of the situation and regain control, one may refuse to try due to unsuccessful past attempts.
In terms of the Expectancy Theory on human motivation, we might say that an individual/employee with LH has a low or zero amount of expectancy. Or even that it is a disadvantage of Expectancy Theory.

Definition of Learned Helplessness. Meaning

Seligman defined LH as "a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are "escapable," presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation."

Dealing with Learned Helplessness at Work

This principle helps to understand and counteract certain employee counterproductive behaviors. Upon analyzing the behavior closely, one realizes it is a negative consequence of LH. What can be signals / indicators that an employee's attempts are burdened by LH at work due to negative experiences instead of appreciation or encouragement?
  • Reduced confidence and self-esteem.
  • Decline in productivity, job performance and employee satisfaction.
  • Increase in hopelessness and turnover intentions.
  • Unhealthy workplaces where employees' opinions are not valued.
Note that LH is not always experienced across an entire team or a department (although it can be). For instance, if employees watch one of their colleagues being frequently promoted at work, some of them may assume that they are not being given sufficient opportunities or chances to succeed as the promoted one. And some of those might as a result start to feel helpless and give up.

The 5 Best Ways in which Managers can Tackle Learned Helplessness

  1. USE THE PROGRESS PRINCIPLE: Key features of LH are reduced hope and the perceived loss of control over the situation. Managers can help restore or retain optimism and motivation among employees by using the progress principle. Look for small things/ways to enable daily progress. This can increase employee engagement and productivity. For instance, by giving them a minor challenge or make some well-defined partial progress on an assignment they are working on.
  2. BOOST INTRINSIC MOTIVATION: If employees have experienced several negative consequences on their path to success, managers can increase their intrinsic motivation by creating new opportunities and/or autonomy and ensure that their efforts are acknowledged. This will help employees avoid the adverse effects of LH. Becoming aware of several opportunities that can be seized may help employees regain control over the situation which they had assumed to be uncontrollable.
  3. EMPOWER WITH OPTIMISM AND COURAGE: If the employees believe that their past attempts were futile, they may give up and accept the reality without making further efforts. Hence, managers should help employees stay courageous and positive. They can remind the employees of positive, rewarding, constructive outcomes their efforts might result in. Approaching the situation with a positive mindset may counter and prevent employees from giving up and perhaps from quitting.
  4. PROVIDE ADEQUATE FEEDBACK: An employee's ideas or opinions might be frequently rejected due to their superior's lack of communication and relevant feedback. Managers should ensure that employees are well aware of their expectations for specific projects or goals. If an employee's ideas are rejected, feedback and open communication could help the employee realize which aspects could be revised or improved.
  5. BE A FACILITATOR: Rather than making employees ruminate on their problem, encourage them to find solutions. If you, as a superior, take matters into your own hands and directly present them with a solution, they may feel inadequate and build a lack of self-esteem. So it's better to provide them with opportunities, resources, training, support and coaching to solve the problems themselves. Some (initial) support by the manager is OK, as this may help reduce the consequences of negative past experiences.
⇨ Did you ever face cases of learned helplessness among your people? How did you tackle it?
Seligman, Martin E.P. (1972). "Learned Helplessness", Annual Review of Medicine 23 (1): 407412.
Juarez, V. (2017, October 25). Overcoming Learned Helplessness in the Workplace", Inspiring HR.
Lighthouse Blog (2021, December 28). "The Two Words Leaders should Fear Most that Cause Employee Disengagement.


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