Consulting to reverse learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is devastating to any organization. Here are some guiding thoughts when you’re tasked with fighting it.

hand reaching out of the water holding a sparkler

According to a recent Gallup “State of the American Workplace” report, fully two-thirds of U.S. employees feel disengaged at work. People get “stuck” at work for many reasons, regardless of position in the organization.

Sometimes budgets are tight, or maybe upper management is asking for unrealistic deliverables with little understanding of what it takes to actually deliver, making it almost impossible to succeed. Maybe there is no vision leading to goals and targets seemingly changing weekly, making it difficult to focus on getting anything to done. Add to this that everyone is being asked to do more with less, and there is constant pressure to deliver. Within enterprise and larger organizations that I usually work alongside (or anything other than ‘with’, since you have that at the top of the sentence already), I often observe silos of teams that don’t necessarily communicate, but at the same time depend on each other to deliver results.  

All of these situations can create a learned helplessness that can result in creating a verbal echo chamber that reinforces negative perceptions and feelings of powerlessness. Misery loves company, and when one person on a team goes negative, a self-fulfilling reality becomes contagious and needs to be addressed.

External consultants often provide a unique perspective on the teams they are working with, but I pride myself on going beyond consulting and becoming a partner to those I am working to support. My partner and I have built Tamman by focusing on a ‘people first’ mentality. So it is no surprise that my approach to adding value to help reverse the learned behaviors on a team that has taken a turn for the negative is surprisingly simple – focus on the individuals and the things that impact them first. 

First: Empathy, Vision & Alignment.

Talk less and listen more. You can’t learn anything while you are talking. Engage with the folks on the front line of the work. Ask questions, and continue to ask questions until you are confident you understand the challenges that people are dealing with and their unique perspectives. These can be very real or perceived frustrations and problems, but it is important to understand not just how these situations are making people think about work, but also how they make them feel.

Engaging with individuals, truly empathizing with the position they are in, will provide an opportunity and hopefully, an open mind to share what the ultimate vision is. (Note: if there is not a shared vision in place, start there, but that is a different post.) 

Without doing anything else, I have found that this immediately creates a sense of alignment and trust.  At a minimum, it demonstrates that you understand the challenges and provides a window of time, however small, to begin to create a new team dynamic.

Second: Small Bites. Big Wins. 

Institutional dysfunction doesn’t happen overnight. Years of questionable management policies and lack of or mis-direction that is disconnected from the reality of the work has created  problems to be solved. I have found that the best thing to do is identify quick wins with small changes at a time. Decide on some adjustments that can turn the ship. No enterprise is going to wipe out years of bad habits in one fell swoop. 

Concentrating on small changes that can be suggested, and most importantly achieved, will create a path forward. These small wins get you to the next small win or action and so on. It also builds buy-in for the next task. It’s also less intimidating to start with small changes to the process. Incremental fine tuning of the workflow or tackling manageable projects are powerful on the heels of building engagement with people. It is critical with this approach that you are consistent. Positive loops can really change the way work feels on a daily basis, but without a roadmap, it can dissolve as quickly as it started. 

To reinforce each step, there needs to be a high degree of communication from top to bottom on the team. I have found that employees will be patient and forgiving and continue to invest in this change process if they are kept up to speed on and have voice into the projects and workflow. Too often, we managers hold our cards close to the vest, leaving people feeling cut off. By bringing the team along to identify small bites to deliver big wins will provide a boost to esprit de corps when the inevitable unforeseen obstacle emerges. After all the time invested, you don’t want one roadblock to undo the sense of possibility.

Third: Reinforcing a Culture of Appreciation.

I could write a book dedicated to this concept, but I will simplify it and sum it up here. A good working culture is not putting out a bowl of candy and a decent coffee machine. Although material things are nice, they are superficial and will not hold up over time. Maintaining anything meaningful to change hearts and minds requires recognizing individuals and their contributions. 

Good culture comes down to how people treat each other on a daily basis. Actions and words are really important here. Expressing true appreciation for the people around you is contagious and if you make it a point to call out the good that is happening it changes the air in the room. 

I have found that, strangely, people resist this at first. For some reason, people are both reluctant to brag about success as well as uncomfortable accepting praise. Eventually though, if you are consistent and intentional and push through that phase – even with some joy or silliness – most folks will start to see that expressing appreciation for others publicly actually changes the way they feel about the culture, their teammates, and the overall situation. This helps foster the “we have each other’s back” mentality, that brings the people who feel alienated or stuck back into the fold. Feeling connected to the vision, work, and their team can reverse feelings of helplessness or disengagement.

This may seem simple or even a little obvious, but it takes time and consistency. There are no quick fixes or silver bullets to reserving employee dissatisfaction. However, when done right, over time, a focus on individuals will serve the needs of your client in the best way possible too.

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