- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

There is nothing I can do’ must be fought before it becomes collective belief.

Feeling trapped, is at the core of some aspects of one’s mental health, and also organizational distress.

The deep awareness and study of this feeling is rather old, going back to psychologist Martin Seligman’s studies in 1967 in Pennsylvania. He is the one who crafted the concept of ‘learned helplessness’, which includes the conviction that ‘there is nothing one can do’ and, in summary, one has lost control over circumstances. In extreme, it may be at the core of clinical depression, or at least one of the multiple ‘learned’ mechanisms that can lead to that. There is plenty of experimental data around this, including animal studies, and the solidity of the concept has stood the test of time whilst many other ‘theories’ have matured and retired.

This is an important concept for the organization’s life and the individuals as protagonists. How you respond to the ‘being trapped’ awareness is also personal, of course. Some people will fight; some will give up, some in between. But the famous ‘being resistant to change’ considered a change mantra for many years, could be understood as a resistance to ‘being changed with no control over it’, more than to the intrinsic merits of whatever change is on the plate.

Anything leaders can do to disable the traps, real or imaginary, would be a great thing to do. This is not the same as destroying barriers or bringing them down. That may or may not be possible. But, there is always some degree of control even in the most non-controlled of the situations.

How to master resilience, for example, starts with the acknowledgement that ‘feeling trapped’ may be a default position that needs to be fought. Resilience does not happen without engaging. It’s not a theoretical concept or another word for passivity.

In my organization consulting experience of many years, and my many validations when bringing the topic up at my speaking engagements at corporate conferences, there has always been a clear constant in this area: managers always underestimate the power they really have to change things, and this usually comes from the confrontation with the Big Things they cannot change. Those Big Things contaminate everything, even the next Big or Smaller things that fall under their own personal control.

Learned helplessness, leadership style, collective or otherwise, in the organization, must be tackled straight on. It is incredibly toxic and spreadable.