Do You Fostor Helplessness or a “Can Do Spirit?”

by David Lee

Originally published in the Employment Times, 2009

In these rather challenging times, you need ALL of your employees thinking and acting like winners, not throwing up their hands in defeat or metaphorically curling up in the fetal position.

How you communicate with them plays a huge role in which kind of workforce you get.

Just recently, I heard two examples that illustrated opposite approaches to communication by senior management. One approach virtually guaranteeing what psychologists call “Learned Helplessness”, while the other fostering an engaged, “Can do” attitude.

Here’s What Not to Do If You Want “Can Do” Employees

First, the bad example:

At a seminar I just gave on how to help your workforce thrive during difficult times, I had a couple of managers from the same organization come up to me and ruefully say how they wished their senior team had heard the talk. They especially focused on two of the key factors I shared about what determines whether employees feel challenged or threatened by change:

  1. Whether senior management keeps employees in the loop — versus in the dark. Research on stress shows that even if we don’t have control over a difficult situation, if we at least know what’s going on and/or what is going to happen — i.e. we have clarity and/or predictability — we have what’s called “perceived control.” Thus, even if the news isn’t pleasant, it’s better to get the news than be kept in the dark.
  2. When employees believe their voice is heard. Think of your own experience. If your opinion is not welcome, if you’re not listened to, you feel pretty darn helpless. When employees feel this day in and day out, it creates an ongoing state of Learned Helplessness. In this state, people don’t even TRY to find solutions to problems. They just “know” there’s no use, so they don’t even bother to try.

One of the managers who came up to me afterwards said “Our senior leadership team said their goal was transparency, but their idea of transparency is ‘OK, here’s what’s going to happen.'” When I asked the duo what they wanted from their leadership team instead, they said, not surprisingly:

“Don’t come to us after a decision is made, ask for our thoughts beforehand.”

Both managers — seasoned pros — understand that management isn’t a democratic process or a “consensus rules” enterprise. But they do — just like the rest of us — want to at least be heard when major changes will affect every aspect of their work life.

Here’s How to Do It Right

Contrast this with a story I just heard from Krista Irmischer, HR Manager of Jotul North America, which received the #1 Best Places to Work in Maine for small to medium sized companies in 2008.

I recently interviewed Krista and Jotul’s president, Bret Watson, to find out what they see as the key “differences that make a difference” in their ability to be an Employer of Choice.

Describing their philosophy of leadership and communication, Bret commented: “We always have to remember when making decisions at the leadership level ‘Who is that going to impact most?”

Krista picked up this theme and shared a specific example involving a layoff of 8 employees: “I think Bret has a remarkable way of thinking ‘How will this affect (Jotul’s production manager) Matt’s life?’ We were trying to decide on the timing of the layoff, and were thinking about early December. Matt spoke up and said ‘I’m not feeling really good about this. I think it would make people on the line feel so lousy about it happening around the holiday time.’ So Bret said ‘OK, help us understand what would make better sense for you on the line, being the manufacturing leader’.”

What Can You Learn From This?

This little Moment of Truth captures several important points that leaders should remember:

If you’ve read any of my articles on Employer Branding or Onboarding, you know I talk about this a lot. It’s so easy in the busyness of work life to not think about the consequences of decisions, especially those that seem minor. But every decision, every interaction with employees, has the potential of leaving a lasting impression — for better or for worse. Every communication has the potential for improving or diminishing morale.

If you reflect on this little anecdote, you’ll notice a series of events with corresponding consequences.

Jotul’s president Bret Watson welcomes people’s opinions, even if they differ from his. He also cares enough about how decisions affect the workforce to ask about the potential impact — rather than the “This is how it is, so deal” mentality of some leaders. Because of this, his team members feel safe enough to speak up and share their point of view.

Because of they feel safe enough to speak up, Matt, the operations supervisor, provided a perspective that led to a better decision for the timing of the layoff, better in terms of employee morale and trust, and therefore, employee engagement.

Because of interactions like these, team members are more likely to feel like they CAN make a difference, resulting in a “Can do” attitude vs. a resigned “Whatever.” attitude you see in many organizations.

Before People Try to Make a Difference.

One of my favorite sayings about creating a “Can Do Workforce” comes from Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines. He took Continental from a demoralized company with the worst turn-around time in the industry, to the best in three months. Many of the ideas that made such a remarkable turnaround came from the people in the front lines.

He observed: “These people needed to learn they could make a difference before we could expect them to want to.”

Are you creating an Atmosphere of Learned Helplessness or “Can Do Spirit?”

Do you…

  • Ask employees for their input and perspectives prior to making changes or launching new initiatives?
  • Ask employees to generate ideas for improving quality, productivity, and customer service, etc?
  • Make it a regular practice of asking ‘what do you think about ____?”or “How could we improve _______?”
  • Celebrate and reward efforts to think outside the box and try new things?
  • Give employees the information they need to provide intelligent input?
  • Keep them in the loop about significant changes?
  • Make it “safe” for people to disagree with you?

 This may be reprinted in your in-house communication, if printed it its entirety, along with author bio.

About the Author: David Lee is the founder of HumanNature@Work  and StoriesThatChange.com. He is an internationally recognized thought leader in the field of employee engagement and performance, and the author of over nearly one hundred articles and book chapters that have been published in trade journals and books in the US, Europe, India, Australia, and China.

The second edition of the business classic, The Talent Management Handbook, features a chapter of his on the topic of Onboarding. He is also the author of Powerful Storytelling Techniques, published by ASTD Press.