Why nothing ever changes in your company
Nothing ever changes around here! I’m not even going to get into it, management will shut it down anyway. It won’t make a difference, so I won’t even ask.
Sound familiar? Be honest! Have you heard, or maybe even used, these sentences before? In the line of work that we’re in we’ve heard these sentences, and phrases just like it, hundreds of times over. What makes it interesting though is the fact that these sentences come from intelligent, highly educated, socially engaged people. People who are very good at what they do by the way! These people work in complex environments, building highly sophisticated products for a wide variety of customers, end-users and markets. And yet, even THEY can’t make a difference?! How come?
At the end of this article you’ll see that these thought patterns are trained. You learn these behaviors, albeit subconsciously. The upside of this knowledge is that you can unlearn them as well, if you stick to these five principles.
Shocks and helplessness
So first, let’s take a trip into shady end 60s behavioral psychology. Because all good stories start there.
In 1967 psychologist Martin Seligman published the results of an experiment we would now frown upon from an animal welfare perspective. In this experiment, which involved dogs and some electrical shocks, he concluded that animals who were prevented from escaping said shocks would eventually just give up. They wouldn’t even try to escape anymore. Even when these poor little creatures were put in a new environment from which escape was very much possible indeed, they didn’t try. They had learned that an effort to get out didn’t make a difference.
Now, fast-forward 30 years or so. Psychologists began to wonder what factors influenced this ‘learned helplessness’ in people and came to the conclusion that most humans are more complex than dogs. At least when it comes to thinking about the events in their lives. Failure is inevitable, but how you subconsciously react makes a huge difference. When confronted with a negative event, such as a suboptimal working environment or you know, a casual electric shock, everyone (and everything!) tries to get out. When you repeatedly fail to get out however, some people have a reasoning style that leads them to conclude that they themselves are incapable of effecting change in their situation. That there’s something stable and persistent in their abilities that will translate to every other attempt they’re going to make. In other words, these people learn that they have no control over the situation, no matter what they do, and they stop trying.
We see this in organizations as well. People have tried new initiatives and failed time and time again. They bounced off organizational restraints, got stonewalled by management, failed to get funding, were demotivated by negative reactions from coworkers, or simply tried a bad idea or didn’t follow through. Whatever the cause, they learned that their efforts do not result in change and that trying is useless. Nothing ever changes around here… Sound familiar?
Now, this could lead to all kinds of unwanted effects in the workforce, especially when the organization is trying to change the way they work with a largely bottom up approach. The environment’s changing, but this ‘learned helplessness’ carries over and even though change is now more possible than ever the behaviors that create change have been effectively unlearned. All too often this leads leadership to conclude that the employees lack motivation or even ability, which ironically strengthens the cycle even more.
Fear not, for not all hope is lost! Thankfully, the dogs that were taught to be helpless weren’t just left to their fates. The second major outcome of this line of studies was that once helplessness has been learned, it can be unlearned as well. Even though the dogs didn’t try to get out anymore, once the scientists showed the animals there was a way out by picking them up, and coaching them to get out, the dogs quickly learned to escape again.
Later experiments have shown that roughly the same holds true for humans. When we factor in the more complex thought processes, the following approaches could counteract learned helplessness in people:
- Be a guiding mentor. To help people re-initiate their ideas, since their past learnings have demotivated them to try in the first place.
- Coach people to initiate a small change themselves. Instead of being a guiding mentor, stay on the sidelines. This helps to form a new positive association for creating change, namely that it works.
- As a leader, make sure that your employees see and experience the outcomes of their change initiatives. This reinforces the sense of control they have on the way things work around here.
- Although the outcome of the change is important, you should praise the process of how the change was established. This focuses attention on taking initiative rather than outcome, so that when circumstances inevitably change, behavior doesn’t.
- Remember there’s plenty of people, either in your company or as fresh new hires, that have a more optimistic tendency as well. Strategically placing these leaders-to-be in parts that need change can show everyone else that effort does work.
So, in short. When nothing ever changes in your company, there might be some complex psychology going on. Most people are pretty smart, and therefore highly adaptive to circumstance. Past, repeated disappointments may lead to passiveness in regards to trying new stuff. Keep this in mind, and avoid the pitfall of blaming the ability and motivation of your employees for this lack of initiative. Try these five guidelines and let us know in the comments what you think! If after reading this you’re thinking: “Interesting stuff, sounds cool and all, but this will never work at my organisation!”, you might want to consider reading this article again and maybe give us a call.
About the authors:
Teun Menting and Remko Vroomans are consultants at Prowareness. They specialize in team effectiveness and how to use these teams as a flywheel in a large scale organizational change. Through training and consulting they have helped multiple companies and government organizations with accelerating change.