by Jim Davis

Are you familiar with the concept Learned Helplessness? In the late 60s, Professor Martin Seligman was running studies on classical conditioning when he discovered a concept that changed the field of psychology (find the original article HERE).

One of his most famous experiments placed dogs in special cages with electrically charged floors. Researchers would deliver a slight shock, then observe the dogs’ behavior. The first group of dogs, one by one, escaped the cage when the shock was delivered. The other group did not.

That ‘other’ group had previously been part of experiments wherein they could not escape the jolts. In this new environment, when the floor delivered its charge, those dogs recognized the feeling, then laid down to wait out the shocks once again. They didn’t try to escape. They had “learned” that enduring these shocks was par for the course.

Researchers refer to the behavior as Learned Helplessness. Look closely and you’ll see similar situations happening around you (perhaps to you) all the time.

The Lazy Leader

“Ryan” had a bad boss. In their meetings, Ryan’s boss was routinely on his phone or computer and seldom made eye contact. Their regular meetings developed predictable routines. The meeting would start with the boss finishing an email. Ryan would sit and wait. “What’s up,” the boss would then ask, then halfheartedly listen while texting or turning attention back to his emails. Then, without fail, the boss would spend a portion of every meeting celebrating a project that he’d been working on that did not involve Ryan.

Then there were the days when Ryan would show up for their meeting, only to discover that his boss was not in the office and forgot to take their appointment off the calendar. The boss would undoubtedly blame that clerical error on his secretary.

When we surveyed Ryan on whether he felt “genuinely listened to” in his organization, he scored it a 3/10. He knew things were not ideal, but this became the expectation. Subconsciously, he learned that this was the standard. Ryan laid down and absorbed the shocks.

When Ryan eventually reported to a new boss, he was thrown off by the amount of care this new boss seemed to show. Ryan’s gratitude spiked at simple behaviors like maintaining eye contact and asking how his week had been. He was thrilled when an entire meeting passed without the cell phone coming out. Ryan felt appreciated. Compared to his previous boss, this level of investment “made [him] uncomfortable at first.”

The first step to breaking a cycle of #learnedhelplessness is #selfawareness. Something has to shake the dog awake and remind it to look for the exit.

Ryan had experienced learned helplessness. Unfortunately, by the time he and I met, he reported that it had already rippled out into other areas of his work. Ryan led a small team within the organization. After a couple years, he too began to subconsciously mimic lazy behaviors in meetings. He’d check his phone. He would not, in his own words, demonstrate the amount of “respect my team deserved.” We had some work to do.

At least he noticed it. The first step to breaking a cycle of learned helplessness is self-awareness. Something has to shake the dog awake and remind it to look for the exit.

Here’s the good news: if you can learn helplessness, you can learn empowerment. You can learn resilience. You can learn optimism.

Learned optimism – that’s exactly what Seligman and his team are focused on now.

Strength in Optimism

Seligman notes that about one third of the subjects in his studies are able to overcome that sense of helplessness. Their secret? Optimism.

In his human studies, Seligman found that “people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable,” (Seligman, 2011). These findings, focused on the link between optimism and resilience, inspired Seligman to create the Penn Resiliency Program and, in 2008, begin training soldiers in the U.S. Army. It’s part of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program which aims, in part, to prepare soldiers to “face the physical and psychological challenges of sustained operations”.

If it’s good enough for the army, then it’s good enough for business challenges too. In regard to company culture, one must maintain optimism about those with whom they share a purpose. There’s no other way to be successful over the long haul.

Key: one must believe that they and their team will arrive at a better place if everyone works hard to get there. It might not be easy, the road might wind or be full of potholes, might have to switch cars or roads or drivers. But they will get there. Every member of the team has to believe it.

When done well, optimism influences countless decisions. It influences communication and decision making. It influences, as mentioned, resilience. A dog without optimism stays on the floor. The optimistic dog checks the exit one more time. Every time Rocky Balboa got up from the canvas, he did so because he believed he had a chance to win. It was a glimmer of hope. A light at the end of the tunnel. Even in the most desperate of moments, he maintained optimism.

It’s actually one of the most compelling parts of human nature. Would you have watched the Rocky movies if he dominated every fight? What if he laid down and quit after being knocked down? No way. We thirst for that unseeable force that compels him to get up off the mat and keep fighting. Though the odds might not be in his favor, the candle of optimism is lit. And we tune in for it.

You wouldn’t want to watch Rocky lay flat on the floor, and you wouldn’t want to work for an organization full of pessimists who are not willing to see the job through to the end.

Optimism may seem like a “soft” quality, but it can be the font of great strength.

Optimism minimizes micromanagement through shared faith in team performance, and offers a healthy foundation for communication when expectations are not met.

The Ripple Effect of Optimism

In company culture initiatives, there will always be a few people who are not sold on this idea. They’ve seen the hard truths of the world. They know that things don’t always go well. They might even suggest aloud that optimism is the disposition of a fool, a novice (I’ve heard this at times, with more colorful language). These concerns are fair and should be entertained.

Though there may be skeptics, there’s no good case against deliberately maintaining optimism within your organization. Optimism does not imply that one must see the world through rose colored glasses. Things won’t just work out on their own. The term we use in a company setting is “pragmatic optimism”, which includes realism, thoughtful assessment, and regular reworking of plans. Optimism is necessary. It often requires hard work.

When we get it right, it plays a positive role in how we communicate with one another. When I began working with Ryan, it was clear that if he did not believe there was something better out there, then we couldn’t work very hard on leadership skills. If he stayed in a place of learned helplessness, down there on the metaphorical floor, then the “effort” to evolve would be adding insult to injury. So we started with awareness.

Did Ryan believe that there was a chance to improve? Did he believe that there might be an opportunity for him to be an elite leader, despite the leadership models he was used to?

The outcome doesn’t have to be likely. It just has to be possible. And we have to believe.

“Imagine the difference between spending time stressing about whether or not a teammate will meet the deadline, versus sending them a note that says ‘you got this, looking forward to seeing the final product!’ From a core of #optimism, behaviors and interactions shape themselves.”

Maintaining optimism begins between the ears of the leader but ripples out into daily operations. Optimism improves the willingness of coworkers to grapple with complicated ideas together. When they believe they can accomplish something as a team and don’t worry about being judged (social optimism), they stand a far greater chance of success.

Optimism minimizes micromanagement through shared faith in team performance, and offers a healthy foundation for communication when expectations are not met. Optimism quells frustration by allowing quicker access to a sense of calm. Optimism curbs moments of fretting about whether or not your coworkers are speaking poorly about or whether they will do a good job on their portion of the project – it gives you that time back. Relieves you of that stress. Think of the internal bandwidth that would come by the minimization of workplace anxiety.

And during those times when the worry feels warranted, when someone does not actually pull their weight? Send a note of encouragement before the deadline.

Imagine the difference between spending time stressing about whether or not a teammate will meet the deadline, versus sending them a note that says “you got this, looking forward to seeing the final product!” From a core of optimism, behaviors and interactions shape themselves.

The positive impacts of optimism could fill the pages of a book. But let’s start with this: try it, and see what you think. Work to maintain optimism about those with whom you share a purpose.

Catch yourself slipping down the road of pessimism and when you do, forgive yourself, clarify with your coworker, and return to that optimistic state. Work for it. Hold on to it. And let us know what you think.

Primary References:

Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1–9.

Youssef, C.M., & Luthans, F. (2007). Optimism and Resilience Positive Organizational Behavior in the Workplace: The Impact of Hope.

James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.

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