18. What is learned helplessness in companies?

We are talking about learned helplessness when employees have been taught to expect high pressurestress and discomfort without seeing a way to escape such circumstances.

When employees after some fight or flight reactions start to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they were helpless.
They stop having any initiatives to react and make some changes.

In the case study below the problem escalated when a new skilled manager joined the company and started implementing changes without prior human potential analyses and a deep dive into the organizational climate.

At rational level the changes have been welcomed by his team. Everything seemed logical, natural and promising.

At psychological level the team could not respond to the new challenges and demands adequately due to previously learned helplessness and negative convictions, which led to resistance and passive aggression.


In the past the team members from this story were taught not to have control over anything, which affected them cognitivelymotivationally and emotionally.

They have been firmly convinced that anything they do will not change the outcome in the company, which results in the lack of motivation and the feeling of hopelessness and even the depressed state.

Nothing will change, so why bother? In their mindset, change seems unfeasible!!!

New stressors

Mark is a highly experienced and skilled senior manager who has joined the company to support its acquisition process.
He is accurate, result-oriented, well-organized, loves details and challenges.
He is full of new ideas and enthusiasm to make a significant difference in a company that has been just taken over.
He has great expectations from his team members and want them to follow his vision and speed.

Level 1: It seems that he and his team are in I am OK, you are OK position.

However, he is not aware that he should manage a team of people who are used to being submissive, reactive and insecure at work due to the previous managerial style that was autocratic.
In addition, he is not aware that people cannot give what they do not have, in this case they do not know how to be proactive and confident in expressing their suggestions, ideas, solutions.
Nobody before him asked them for their opinion!

Unaware of people`s needs and feelings, he relies on his previous knowledge and experience and starts to delegate the tasks to people they are not up to.
They do not react adequately, but he still believes that it is enough to have high motivation and enthusiastic words to boost their morale.

Still unaware of the cause of their inadequate behavior over time he is getting frustrated and starting putting his subordinates under higher pressure, which makes them feel bad and confirms their belief that they are inadequate and incapable.

This happens at psychological level and he is neither aware of it nor he wishes to change his approach. His focus is firmly on procedures and changes not on how people feel under such high stress!

Moreover, he is not aware that at the organizational level there are still remnants of the previous organizational script  “Do not rock the boat if you want to keep a job”, in other words, be silent and do whatever a boss tells you if you want to keep a job.

Level 2: Consequently, he enters I am OK and you are not OK position towards his team and interpersonal relations are getting worse rapidly.

As a way-out he chooses harder work and more pressure on people, however, his enthusiasm and energy decline, his subordinates are at the verge of burning out, and he is getting desperate and exhausted.

Level 3: Now he and his team are in I am not OK and you are not OK position.

This is one of the challenges you may meet during acquisitions and mergers processes.

What do you think which level is the best time for Coaching Drama interventions?!!!

More about Coaching Drama you can find at www.CoachingDrama.com

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