in Management

Avoiding learned helplessness at work

What do recent graduates think about working in large firms?

Can work be fulfilling and meaningful and human for everyone (as I write about here, here, and here)? Or do most people work for money and go home for meaning?

Recently, I had lunch with recent graduates who are still in a training program. They’ve been working long enough to see what big companies are like but not so long as to be jaundiced. And we talked about their views on work and career.

The conversation made me both sad and hopeful.

The question

I started by saying I believed that all of us are hardwired to want control over the work we do and to get better at it. That we want a purpose for what we do and want connections with people at work. And that anyone – not just a lucky few – can have all of this at work.

Did they agree? Was I naive?

They felt the basic human motivators – autonomy, mastery, purpose, and community – resonated with them. And that work could and should appeal to those motivators.

But that’s not what they saw. For many people at work who’d been there longer, “It’s like their candle had been snuffed out.”

Learned helplessness at work

They went on to provide examples of people who’d become negative and complacent and who’d stop trying to make work fulfilling. We eventually used the term “learned helplessness” to describe the state those people were in:

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

They agreed that people weren’t born negative and complacent. They were trained to become that way. They felt that most people who go to college and join large firms are looking to tap into those basic human motivators at work. But, over time, many learn that it’s not possible, at least not for them.

“What’s making you feel helpless?”

I could see that the trainees were starting to question their own work experience. “What happening at work,” I asked, “that’s making you feel helpless?”

Two things stood out. The first was the work itself. Sometimes it was unthinking, manual work (“update this spreadsheet by cutting and pasting for an hour”). Or it was mindless administration, filling out templates and reports about work instead of doing the work itself.

The second, and more insidious, was the commentary of people around them, including trainees from the previous year:

“You’re just a grad.”  

“This is the way we do it. We can’t change it.” 

“Wait till you’ve been here longer. Then you’ll see.”

The disaffected were passing on what they’d learned.

A surprising contrast

But then our conversation took a turn. Not all of the work and not every person was like that. The trainees had two different assignments – different roles and different managers – and it was often like working for two different companies.

“One rotation was awful. But on the other I was running projects. Everyone was working towards the same goal. And it felt like a cohesive, collaborative environment.”

“The difference was mentoring. One manager would be there whenever you needed help or had an idea. The other would tell us to discuss it at the next monthly meeting.”

One might experience autonomy, learning, and purpose: “I like what I’m doing. I have lots of responsibility and control. Maybe too much!” 

Another would experience helplessness: “You can’t do that. You’re just a grad. You need more experience.” 

What are you doing to avoid “career roulette”?

So here were these smart, young, articulate, enthusiastic people. And, depending on an assignment – largely chance – their work could be motivating and fulfilling or, in one trainee’s description, “depressing”.

What could they do to take a bit more control? To avoid learned helplessness?

Like most people, they simply didn’t know. They might try some things in their team, but finding the right kind of people and projects across a large firm was too hard. Yet, while I was sad at the thought of so many burnt out candles and so much wasted potential, I was hopeful for these trainees.

In 2012, you don’t have to be lucky to avoid learned helpfulness. You can work out loud, take control over your reputation, and build purposeful social networks. That’s what exposes and unlocks opportunities.

New tools and practices make all of this easier than ever. Who better than trainees to start using them?