From my early career as a therapist and now as an author and leadership expert, I’ve been helping people learn about the power and happiness that comes with the mindset of accountability. And counterintuitively, to teach this mindset, I first teach its opposite: learned helplessness. Why? When people believe they can’t have any impact on their circumstances, it keeps them from stepping into the power they already have to create happiness and success.
Take me and my desire to lose weight, for example. After a few months of seemingly doing whatever I could to make the numbers on the scale budge, I was seeing little results. In fact, I started wholeheartedly believing I had a thyroid problem. When I went to my doctor, he ran a series of tests and shared with me the great news: My thyroid was perfectly healthy, a bit overactive actually! He was thrilled, I was devastated. You see, the reality is that I had told myself a story, believing I had done everything I could to lose weight. In reality, as my doctor helped me accurately account for my habits, I realized that I was only making half-hearted attempts. I was consistently dieting from morning until afternoon. After 3 p.m., though, I wasn’t so accountable to my goal, but I looked to attribute it to a medical problem. A lot of us live our lives the same way. We cite external reasons as to why we can’t succeed and believe our own stories that our half-hearted attempts to get results were real.
Learned helplessness causes us to fall into the belief that external circumstances hold us back from success, that everyone or everything else is at fault, and more importantly, that there’s no way to overcome it. It correlates to your team’s engagement because if they see their circumstances through their ego, they can’t see how they can make an impact.
I’m not talking about healthy self-confidence. I’m talking about the ego that works like a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription. It skews reality and causes our teams to move away from the actual facts of a situation, assigning motive, making assumptions and overwriting reality with a mental story. It drops us into the role of the victim, giving someone or something else all the power. Over time, this habit of thought calcifies into a set of powerless and helpless behaviors, in which people hold themselves back more effectively than any external circumstance or person ever could. When people hold the belief that they don’t have an impact, they disengage.
Learned helplessness is symbolized by battle fatigue, that moment when we encounter yet another obstacle and believe, This issue just never goes away and there is really nothing we can do about it. We just need to learn to live with it. Humans may not be rational, but they are predictable. People will take a limitation from the external environment, internalize it, exaggerate it and bolster it in their imaginations until they’ve shackled themselves. They tell themselves a story about what’s possible and impossible, and that story dictates their effort.
Step Into the Power You Already Have
For some time, the conventional leadership wisdom has been that we need to listen idly to the complaints of unhappy employees, that leaders need to work on providing employees with optimal working circumstances so they feel empowered and engaged. The conventional wisdom has led leaders to cultivate an entitled workforce, not an accountable one, which is what actually leads to engagement.
If you encourage people to cite their circumstances as the reasons they can’t succeed and make excuses for their lack of results, you encourage learned helplessness and the victim mentality that goes with it. You allow people to believe, in essence, “We cannot do our best work in sub-optimal circumstances, and we are not 100 percent personally responsible for our results.” In the reality of daily work, our teams will operate with a less-than-perfect plan, imperfect clients and less-than-desired resources. Our roles as leaders is to help them step into the power they already have, which is using their skills, talents and abilities to fill the gap that exists between reality and perfect circumstances.
Questions to Spur Self-Reflection
If someone comes to you in a state of learned helplessness, seeing only lack and impossibility, the best action you can take is to interrupt their thinking and help him or her get to the bottom of the “story.” It is the role of the modern leader to coach a new mindset—that the stories we tell ourselves are the sources of most of our suffering, and any stressful thought we have is most likely untrue.
Here are two great questions you can ask to bring your team back to reality:
1. What do we know for sure?
The first question to overcome a powerless mindset is, “What do we know for sure?” Listen for the facts. Repeat the facts you heard and ask if that’s pretty much what is known for sure. Then ask a quick follow-up question to inspire action: “What can you do to help?”
2. What would great look like?
One of my favorite questions to stop venting in its tracks is, “What would great look like right now (for the client, your team, your project)?” This flips the switch from thinking as a victim to generating an empowering and accountable action plan. People can usually answer this question because everyone knows what great looks like; it’s the basis on which we judge others. For example, when your morning coffee line isn’t moving fast enough to make it to work on time, we can always describe what great would look like (i.e., they need more help, more registers, a better process, etc). Your people know and can describe to you what great looks like, and so I say, “Awesome. Now, go be great.”
These questions work because they help us move beyond the skewed filter of our ego and spur self-reflection. And self-reflection is the foundation of personal accountability. As leaders, we can eradicate learned helplessness by waking up those who have fallen asleep to the story of the ego that they are powerless and can’t have any impact. Instead of seeking to fix and perfect your team’s circumstances, transform their mindsets to live skillfully in any reality. Imagine the power your team will have when they develop the skills to succeed in spite of any circumstances that come their way. What a powerful way to immediately turn excuses into results.