What is Learned Helplessness and How Does it Hurt Employee Experience?

A look into how the way we're wired impacts employees' perception of work and satisfaction.


Michael G. Bartlett

August 16, 2020

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Over the last few years, I have spent countless hours researching the science behind experience. This undertaking has expanded my appreciation for concepts frequently exchanged by those working within the customer experience (CX) and employee experience (EX) domains. 

One such concept is that of Learned Helplessness. The evolutionary underpinnings of this condition are fascinating and have many insights to offer. Therefore if you are a CEO, business leader, or manager, I implore you to read on.

Let’s start at the beginning. 

A quick internet search of Learned Helplessness brings up the following definition:

A condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.

Wikipedia explains the numerous experiments used to support the existence of such a condition and a framework for diagnosing its presence. But there is a much darker story to this malady that has far-reaching implications in the business world. To understand this, we need to pivot and look at things through an evolutionary lens.

Over the past 500 million years or so, natural selection has favored organisms that were able to anticipate future events well enough to survive and pass on their genes. This also includes, by default, the evolution of the perceptual and cognitive systems that facilitate such anticipation.  

In her book, Impossible to Ignore, author Carmen Simon shows how our brains are highly evolved prediction machines that maximize their biological fitness by making accurate forecasts. For instance, if you’ve ever been driving and correctly had a feeling the driver in front of you was going to do something dangerous, you will have experienced a small amount of pleasure despite the anger or fear in that moment. This is because your brain accurately predicted the maneuver.

Predictions happen on a number of different dimensions—but the two most impactful ones, according to David Huron, author of Sweet Anticipation, are what and when. If you know what to expect but not when to expect it (or vice-versa), it causes an increase in arousal and attention as your mind tries to deduce cues to aid in the prediction. The most uncertain situations are when the what and when are both unknown. These can lead to mental and physical exhaustion.

If these situations are negative, there are only three categories of response. Fight, Flight, or Freeze. The Freeze response engenders the most stress. The other two at least embody a level of control.

This is where Learned Helplessness becomes relevant. Once an organism is able to predict an event, there is a lot to be gained by being able to influence a positive outcome. This explains why Autonomy (Control) is one of the three key components of Self-Determination Theory, the most widely accepted theory of motivation.

If you have no control then you have no way to influence events. And if the events are negative and unpredictable—meaning you don’t know what to expect and when to expect it—then you are likely to experience considerable stress; more-so if you are unable to speak up (Fight) or walk away (Flight). Your only option is to sit there and take it (Freeze).

Employees who find themselves trapped in environments where they face unpredictable negativity, be it from a manager, co-workers, or their day-to-day tasks, have an increased risk to their health, especially if they have no way to control the events or their outcomes.  

Their job performance will also suffer due to mental and/or physical exhaustion. Nobody willingly sticks around for this, of course. So they are probably sending out their resume' dozens of times a week and having their prediction systems further broken by apathetic recruiters and rejection letters. 

As leaders in your organizations, you have a moral obligation to seek out and eradicate Learned Helplessness.

This is not a new insight, of course. Simon Sinek famously proclaimed “Our jobs are literally killing us!” in his famous TedTalk where he noted the detrimental effects of persistent cortisol in the body. But hopefully, now you have an added insight into the evolutionary reasons behind this.

The key takeaway is that we can’t change how we are wired. We arrived in the world, made this way by an evolutionary process that has spent millions of years optimizing us.

As leaders in your organizations, you should seek out and eradicate Learned Helplessness. By doing so, you’ll ensure happy employees and thus happy customers.  

There are many different ways to do this. But, at the very least, your voice of employee program must contain a way for employees to submit feedback anonymously. Think of that as the first rung on the ladder. This is the recommendation by Cass Sunstein, author of How Change Happens.

Once you have identified if an employee is experiencing Learned Helplessness, the best way to combat it is to find ways to increase the predictability and their control over both positive and negative events. There are numerous tactics to achieve this—the simplest of all being setting SMART goals. This method is so effective, in fact, that it is widely used by many organizations to turn around negative customer experiences with great effect.  

For more information on ways to combat Learned Helplessness, please check out the book, Alive at Work: The neuroscience of helping your people love what they do.

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About the guest author

Michael G. Bartlett, Author, CCXP Exam Preparation 

Michael Bartlett’s materials have trained over 1,000 students to prepare for their CCXP.

In 2017 he wrote the book CCXP Exam Preparation, which has to date raised over $6,000 for charity and helped to fund life-saving operations, transport, and shelter for rescue dogs all over America.  Two years previously, Michael had stumbled across an injured beagle on the side of a Missouri road that changed his life forever, and he has thus now dedicated himself to giving back to help human kind’s best friend.

He is passionate about learning new ideas and then teaching them back to fellow Customer Experience practitioners.  He is currently the Director of Experience Innovation at JMARK in Springfield, MO.

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