If your staff are not performing, promote them!

Some individuals who have demonstrated learned helplessness have been promoted into a managerial position.

Within the workplace learned helplessness can be demonstrated when an individual continues to carry out an action knowing it is not working and yet, not changing anything. This may in part be due to past negative experiences around the action being asked of them; and, the knowledge that any deviation from the original task resulted in a negative experience.
In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were carrying out research on classical conditioning.  This led to the term ‘learned helplessness’.  This is a condition of not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless.

Within the workplace learned helplessness can be a route to management. And this can be a source of grumblings, frustration and resentment from other team members.

Surely not? I hear you ask. Indeed it has been proven in the past, whether at a conscious or unconscious level, some individuals who have demonstrated learned helplessness within the role have been promoted into a managerial position.

Case study

Joe had been with the company for 12 months when a new piece of software was introduced to the department. The new software was pivotal to the Department’s success. It was the key piece of software that pooled together information from all the departments within the company.

Joe had always shied away from using computers; he was reasonably comfortable with emails and the run-of-the-mill Office suites. However, Joe had struggled with learning new applications since his school days.  He always considered himself to be a technophobe and not particularly computer literate.  He knew that the new software would cause problems, he knew it was going to be stressful and that he would get it wrong, he knew he would be receiving negative feedback from his Manager, he knew that the team would be annoyed and impatient with him.  He felt helpless and frustrated and the roll-out had not taken place yet.

As the software was being rolled out to the department, the team were receiving a presentation/training.  (How often does that work out?) Joe knew what his problem was, he didn’t like Change, he loved process and computers never do the same thing twice!

Back at his desk and with the old system no longer accessible, Joe had no alternative but to use the new software.

And so it began…

Armed with his Cheat sheet Joe input his log-in details, it didn’t work; he kept trying with the same username and password and eventually gave up.  He sat there just staring at his PC.  Joe’s Manager came along and could see Joe was not actively doing anything, and asked what was up?, he then showed Joe where to set-up his new account on the software.  Joe knew he would be hopeless.

Next up, Joe looked to add a product to the database, he checked the Cheat sheet and followed the process, again things did not go according to plan; and again, his Manager came and showed Joe how to carry out the task.

This went on and on, with the Manager continuously showing Joe what had to happen.  Joe’s Manager was getting frustrated; the software was new, yes.  However, it was user friendly and although the processes were different, they were better, less labour intensive and with better end results.  Joe just would not or could not see this.

Joe was right; the team were getting frustrated, they needed all hands on deck and Joe was not stepping up.

Workplace Learned helplessness in full swing.

What next…

With the whole department to support on the software transition and introduction of new processes and procedures, Joe’s Manager did not have the time to dedicate one-on-one time to Joe. Therefore, he made the decision to remove Joe from the task and assigned Joe the role of monitoring the system output. This led to Joe monitoring the processes. After a short period of time this became Joe’s unofficial new role, Joe was seen as the Department expert, even though he rarely if at all touched the software. Joe’s team were frustrated with the decision; there were grumblings of “rewarding someone for doing a lousy job”, “maybe I should be incompetent at my role and I will get a cushy little number” and so forth.

As time passed and the team became larger and more productive, it became apparent that there was a requirement for a supervisor to assist the Manager. As Joe was already assisting with the monitoring of the system and processes it seemed a natural fit (hear, easy, not much thought put into the decision) to give Joe the role, this time formally and with monetary recognition.

And the grumblings from the team got louder…

In this situation where Joe’s learned helplessness came in to play and his Manager did not have the time to manage this, Joe’s career was expedited.  He was rewarded for showing no initiative, for not being open to new things.  For giving up before he got started.

Was there a happy ending?

What management skills would your managers demonstrate faced with this scenario, would they sink or swim?

A manager must deal with these situations and not reward unacceptable behaviour.

Seven quick tips for managing learned helplessness…

  1. Ensure your staff member(s) fully understand the task/project/process etc.   One size communication does not fit all.
  2. Allow time in the calendar for ‘safe play’ with new complex changes (it may not be complex to you) before going live.  Encourage deviation from the norm.
  3. Actively encourage questions and concerns.  Better it is dressed now than before going live.
  4. Where appropriate, assign an internal ‘subject matter expert’; (not a managers role) this is the go-to person with concerns and questions.
  5. Publicise any escalation processes for ‘exceptions’.
  6. Recognise strengths and weakness – do not ignore.
  7. If learned helplessness persists, it may be time to consider HR intervention.