In 1967, the famous psychologist Martin Seligman and a colleague started a series of experiments looking at how a perceived lack of control relates to depression and mental illness. Sadly this involved giving electric shocks to dogs and as a dog owner I’m glad to say that ethical considerations have changed since the ‘60s.

Thanks in part to the suffering of those dogs, Seligman discovered what we now know as ‘learned helplessness’. This occurs when “an organism (a person) learns that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli (pain) and has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying”.

Last year Seligman and a colleague, Steven Maier published an article saying that they were wrong. It turn out that “passivity in response to shock” is not learned at all. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events.” While they got the mechanism wrong, the result is the same. Dogs and animals alike will stay passive (helpless) and suffer, even when they have the freedom to do otherwise.

Image © Gregor Findlay


Those suffering from passivity don’t realise they have some control over the outcome of the situation. In these experiments, certain dogs received shocks in a situation where they couldn’t get away from the source of the pain. Later, these dogs were free to escape the pain. It was surprising that the dogs who could simply jump over a short partition and get away from that pain didn’t do just that. They had the freedom to escape and Seligman and colleagues thought they had learned otherwise.

It turns out that animals, including us, actually have a default position of passivity in our brains. The ‘helplessness’ is not learned. This passivity can be overcome by learning control. Activity in one part of the brain (the medial pre-frontal cortex) can over-ride the default position of passivity. By thinking about the control we have we quickly turn off the passivity.

Unfortunately, you can find this passivity all over the organisational world. Take the concept of empowerment as an example. Leaders believe they are empowering their people and in fact, they may be taking the actions to do just that. They may be giving their people all the freedom they need to be in control and own things for themselves. When their people don’t take up the baton these same leaders can end up confused and frustrated. It’s not obvious at all that their people have spent considerable time, months if not years, unconsciously reinforcing their passivity. They’ve ‘learned’ that nothing they do makes a difference in this environment. They’ve learned to be powerless. The leader has changed. Their environment and history have not.

In order for the dogs with so calledlearned helplessness to realise they were free to move for themselves they had to have their legs physically moved for them. While we as humans don’t have our limbs moved for us, we also need to be shown explicitly that we really do have control, different choices and most importantly feel safe that the system around us supports that. Often people need to see proof that they’re safe before they move on.

In my coaching I see examples of passivity far more often than I would like. One of the things I hate about this form passivity is its insidious nature. It lurks unknown, causing damage and pain to those who are unconsciously letting it negatively impact their lives and careers. It frustrates their well intentioned leaders. What is also nasty are the emotions helplessness elicits in its victims. It brings up feelings of shame and guilt. Our society tends to respect strength and ridicules weakness.

In some ways what I see in organisations could better be termed Learned Powerlessness (LP). People take on, or are given, tasks that they just cannot achieve in their current state. They then stay in a painful/shameful/guilty condition feeling they’re not good enough. They don’t feel able to ask for the help they need, even when it would be freely given. For many, asking for help doesn’t even come to mind as an option. To ask for help would be to admit weakness. Again, something that tends to be socially painful in our society.

My LP alarm goes off when I hear someone talk about an intractable task or work goal they have been struggling with and failing at over a period of time. While they may be struggling I don’t believe that they’re failing. In reality one of two things is happening:

They’re not really responsible or accountable for the issue in question, and/or

They don’t have the power, influence and resources to affect the situation.

Often, there is a way to coach someone to develop the awareness and skills so that they can influence a good outcome themselves, independent of others. When this isn’t possible I find myself asking variants of a couple of questions:

Who has the power to make this happen? (clue – It isn’t the person I’m coaching!)

Who has the accountability for this issue? (as per a RACI matrix)

In asking these questions the coachee more often than not finds that they’ve taken on accountability for an issue when it really sits with someone else. Alternately, they simply don’t have the power needed to achieve a result.

The willingness to take on challenges is a strength that is desirable, but can unwittingly become a source of shame and suffering. Are you being too tough on yourself and being blinded by the strength of your determination? Just take a moment to check. Who has the power? Who’s really accountable here?

Gregor Findlay is a highly experienced APECS Accredited Executive Coach and Team Coach.