Getting Stuck on the Escalator

'Learned helplessness' can be a powerful drag on an organization's performance. But there are ways to combat it.
by | May 20, 2009

A colleague recently showed me a humorous video clip: Two professionals get on an escalator, which stops suddenly as they are halfway to the next floor. "Whoa, that's not good!" says one. "Oh, I don't need this!" says the other. "Somebody will come," the first replies. When nobody does, he yells out, "There are two people stuck on an escalator, and we need help!" You get the idea.

The clip makes a powerful point about a behavior known as "learned helplessness," a mental condition that psychologist Martin Seligman has been studying for decades. A person who repeatedly encounters irresolvable crises may learn, over time, to behave helplessly. Unfortunately, this behavior that developed from past experience often prevents the person from recognizing, or acting upon, opportunities to improve a problematic situation in the present.

Seligman's work is relevant to public managers. Learned helplessness results in a feeling of being out of control, or a belief that our actions cannot affect outcomes. People with this perspective feel they have no impact on their environment. While we're unlikely to see people getting "stuck" on an escalator, we do find many people in the workplace who get dubiously stuck in other ways, especially during an economic downturn.

Seligman describes three aspects of learned helplessness:

1. Permanence ("I'm always having problems with my boss").

2. Pervasiveness ("It seems like I have problems with anyone in authority").

3. Personalization ("It must be my fault").

The impact on performance can be huge. People who think this way perform more poorly in college than students with the same IQ; they lack resilience, and don't recover from major setbacks.

Learned helplessness isn't merely an individual phenomenon. For the past eight years, I've worked with community leaders in Jamestown, New York, a once-thriving industrial town that's lost population and jobs over the last several decades. I learned from early interviews with residents that the biggest barrier to success wasn't high taxes or closed factories. It was attitudes. Residents didn't believe that they and their leaders could turn the city around.

But Jamestown is turning around today. It's a complex story, but some of the key steps included:

o Running focus groups with all key stakeholders.

o Developing a list of 11 major community needs (based on those meetings), and action plans to meet each of them.

o Reviewing the plans with stakeholders at community-wide meetings, and making changes based on input.

o Creating action teams (including elected officials, city staff and residents) who worked on each need.

o Ensuring that some of the early changes were very visible (downtown enhancements, neighborhood improvements).

o Reporting regularly on progress through the media (both good news and bad), to ensure transparency and build credibility.

o Hiring a joint city-county lobbyist, who helped bring state and federal grants to the region for economic development.

Through these and other efforts, the city is attracting new businesses, income is up, more people are building new homes, and neighborhoods are being revitalized. Slowly, attitudes are changing. Why? There were two sequential effects. The first effect required intervention, empowering the actors in various ways to both improve their attitude and encourage more proactive behavior. The secondary effect is more a self-perpetuating one, such that practicing more productive behavior and achieving better outcomes promotes improved attitudes. It turns out that attitudes are what economists call a "lagging indicator" -- when behaviors change, attitudes often follow.

What can managers and leaders do to combat learned helplessness? Seligman believes that learned helplessness is caused by the way people interpret adversity. People who interpret events as being out of their control stop trying to deal with those events; they get stuck on the escalator. When you hear people at work complain -- about managers who "don't get it," or about customers who are impossible to please, or about "another absurd policy dreamt up by the people in the legal office," etc. -- yet take no meaningful steps to improve the situation, you're seeing some signs of learned helplessness. And their organization is losing some of their energy and talent.

Learned helplessness tends to increase during economic downturns. When people who have been doing good work get laid off, other staffers are more likely to feel out of control. In a better economy, performing well (a factor they could control) assured they would keep their job. Sensing they now have less influence over their job security, employees may suddenly feel helpless, which, in turn, hinders their ability to perform, or to take action that might improve circumstances for the organization as well as for themselves.

How can public managers intervene and empower their employees to adopt more proactive behavior and improve their attitudes?

Increase communications, especially face-to-face communications. One study of organizational change demonstrated that the most effective communication method during change is done in small groups, face-to-face. Employees are more likely to speak up, ask questions, and offer ideas when meeting with leaders in small groups.

Give employees an accurate sense of "current reality." This is especially important during a recession. Employees don't want you to be a cheerleader, but they do want to hear what's real, what they can expect and what options they have.

Show employees their "line of sight." The term "line of sight" is more often used in the private sector than in government, but it is a powerful concept for any agency. Line of sight refers to employees' ability to see the impact of their work on customers and on the organization's mission. Before each NASA space launch, the agency brings several hundred employees to Cape Canaveral for a few days to meet the crew, learn about the project and find out how their units contributed to the overall mission. Those employees leave with a clear line of sight.

Give employees ways to contribute ideas and act on them. Use the Jamestown insight that attitudinal change usually follows behavioral change. Provide structured ways for employees to improve operations.

Be a model for resilience. Employees always watch their leaders, especially during tough times. How are you responding to your agency's challenges? Keep in mind a comment by economist Paul Romer: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." This is a time to look for opportunities to innovate and change.

Seeking opportunities during this downturn, and inspiring this mindset in employees, may be a public manager's best weapon to combat the hobbling effects of helplessness. It also reduces the tendency for people to get stuck on escalators.

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