EXPERT OPINION: Even an elephant eventually forgets – overcoming learned helplessness

Posted on August 06, 2021

In May of 2020 I wrote an article on “the five things you must do to get ready to work at the office again”, thinking that normal, in-office work was just around the corner. Wow, was I wrong. Here we are 14 months later, just coming off another national Level 4 lockdown. We’ve all made and unmade plans this year in our career and personal lives. We’ve postponed meetings and conferences. Cancelled travel plans.
This, combined with unrest in our country, as well as cold days with uncertain electricity supply, has made for some dark days (quite literally).
Bad news and the inability to plan for brighter days has led to burnout and general malaise for South Africans and persons around the globe. Wharton professor Adam Grant recently wrote in the NYTimes that we are languishing, that is, muddling through the day feeling unsettled. We have become disinterested in life and the things that normally bring us happiness. Corey Keyes, the sociologist who coined the term, says languishing is the absence of well-being. We’re not mentally ill, but also not the picture of mental health. In the workplace, what’s common now is dulled motivation--individual productivity is down by as much two-thirds.  
If your work and personal paths have been full of stumbling blocks this past year, it’s tempting to give up. Take the case of elephants in Kruger National Park. From Professor Rob Slotow’s work we know that even when a reserve is opened, and fences removed, it takes a year or more for elephants to transverse the new area. They remember and live by the fences that were once in place. In (human) psychology, this phenomenon is called learned helplessness, where dark days bring conditioning to expect impediments, deterrents, and discomfort, with little sense of control. A person has the power to change an unpleasant situation, yet doesn’t use that power because he/she/they has learned to be helpless in that situation.
So late-pandemic languishing is very real and pervasive. But it’s especially problematic when it becomes learned helplessness, where we feel no control over what is happening to us. Take the example of a car salesperson who made only a few sales during the hard lockdowns as buyers were initially financially uncertain and less mobile. This lack of control over sales means she now has given up, and isn’t fighting to sell, even as customers now appear on the car lot in Level 3, interested in buying. Instead of assertive selling, she asks herself “What can I really do? I can’t really influence whether people buy or not.”
We may all have similar, societal feelings in the face of COVID and the many economic challenges South Africa must now confront.
While learned helplessness isn’t easy to defeat, it can be done. Evidence from psychology suggests two things. First, compassion. Take it easy on yourself. The external environment was tough on us in 2020 and 2021, so it may be up to you to give yourself a break. Rest and recovery are essential to avoid burnout. If you can, take the vacation, or at least take the weekend off. And ask yourself which of your tasks are essential to do today, which can be done tomorrow, and which don’t have to be done. Second, psychologist Martin Seligman suggests working to identify what is indeed under your control, as well as understanding the degree to which your failures are:
  • due to external factors (like COVID-related postponements)
  • transient (“this too shall pass”), and
  • specific (due to a particular problem that can be addressed, rather than a larger pattern of problems).
So what if you’re the manager of a person who is feeling learned helplessness? Research advises providing praise and encouragement based on your employee’s abilities (e.g. “You’re a great programmer” or “You have a knack for this project, I can tell”) to help them stay at it. You can also provide praise and encouragement based on positive recent efforts (e.g. “Your hours of hard work were what closed this sale”). Finally, some employees may need more handholding in this tough environment--smart, individual goal-setting to lead them to what they can still achieve, despite dulled motivation or lack of recent success.
Perhaps we need to give ourselves the same pep talk as we find small ways do our part to uplift and remake the structures of South African society.
Present-day load-shedding, low customer sales, retrenchment, or just Zoom life may seem never-ending and be in some ways beyond your control. But compassion, and thinking of your problems as external, transient, and finite can help you begin to see them as manageable and potentially controllable. Someday the dark days will pass, and your motivation will return.
Professor Jenny M Hoobler is a professor of management in the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria.
An edited version on this article first appeared in Business Day on 2 August 2021.
- Author Prof Jenny M Hoobler

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