Improve creativity by overcoming learned helplessness

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Learned helplessness kills creativity and decimates teams. What do we know about it? And how can we turn it around?

What learned helplessness looks like in an organization
What learned helplessness looks like in an organization

What is learned helplessness?

When bad things happen, we like to believe that we would do whatever it takes to change the situation. However research has shown that when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up and accept their faith. Learned helplessness occurs when we are chronically exposed to adverse events and begin to behave in a helpless manner. It can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

We have been designed to have a certain amount of control over our well-being. Usually we would do our best to cause good things in our lives based on this common principle “Do something good, and something good happens to you”. Learned helplessness triggers a shift in our thinking and leads us to the opposite reaction. In other words, we go from active to passive. Initiation stops. Creative thinking stops. Search for solution stops. Trying new options stops. That “nothing I can do” attitude appears in our team and opens to the door to a toxic culture.

Three thinking styles caused by learned helplessness

Seligman’s research on learned helplessness shows that without intervention, it can create three kinds of thinking that people use to explain adverse events that happen to them and why they “can’t do anything” about it.

Personal thinking

When an event led to a negative outcome, we would blame it on ourselves rather than looking at the facts objectively. Let’s assume that a designer has to present a prototype to some important clients. The presentation doesn’t go well. In fact, they didn’t like the prototype and ask her to start over. With personal thinking, the designer would explain the rejection in relation to herself — “I am such a terrible designer”, “I lack talent so no wonder why they didn’t like it”

Pervasive thinking

This kind of thinking would lead us to generalise the negative outcomes to “everything” that relates to us. Using the same example of a designer presenting a prototype, the rejection would now be blamed on the whole picture rather than the self and everything begins to look negative — “The whole industry is rotten”, “I don’t believe in creativity anymore”

Permanent thinking

Now instead of seeing a negative event as a single point in time, we see it as permanent. The same issue will continue to happen and nothing is going to change — “it will always be the same”, “This is the way it is and the way it will always be”. In short, there is no hope and no reasons to hope. This thinking is extremely common in organizations nowadays and usually creeps up when status quo reigns or when employees don’t feel as though they can contribute to positive changes.

How to overcome learned helplessness

There are many ways we can deal with learned helplessness but Dr Henry Cloud offers a comprehensive list of practices that can help teams or entire organizations reverse negative thinking and shift our behaviour from passive back to active. Let’s examine how creative teams can apply those practices and allow creativity to flourish again.

Create connections

This may sound basic however it is important to remember that intimate connections help create healthy organizations. Cohesive teams are the ones that value trust, commitment and accountability. Not only do they value those principles, but they also work tirelessly to grow and maintain an environment where positive peer pressure allows all team members to have their own inputs. A cohesive team can create a sense of togetherness when issues are shared. In fact, they wouldn’t hesitate to share their doubts or fears around decisions that are being made and everyone would work together to resolve the problem. As a designer you can choose to facilitate those discussions by opening yourself to feedback, different opinions and perspectives from your colleagues.

Regain control of your destiny

Having group meetings to review designs or come up with new project leads is an integral part of a design team routine. It feels natural and it is what your job description will likely require from you. Now let’s imagine that the same job description would ask you to meet regularly with your team to discuss internal fears or factors that affect team morale — the touchy-feely stuff. Doesn’t it sound important too? It does, yet many organizations fail to implement such practice. Why? Because we’d rather focus on our daily to-do list, deadlines and do the stuff that a designer is “supposed to do” rather than prioritising organizational health.

Any design team can conduct design studios or sprints, but the teams that comes up with the best ideas are the ones that also spend time eliminating negative thinking. As suggested, having a practice to meet and discuss negative thinking that may circulate around the team is key to regain control over learned helplessness. In those meetings, list any issues that you believe can affect your team in any ways i.e. performance, morale, finance, anything! (and yes you can easily approach this exercise as a affinity diagramming session). Once done, organize the notes in two categories:

Category 1: things that you CAN control

Category 2: things that you CANNOT control

The purpose of this exercise is to help everyone realise that anything we cannot control must be forgotten and removed from our worries. Do not spend time and energy on things outside of your control! However what’s under our control is what we should act upon. Being able to frame the things that you can have control over will give you the motivation to show up, make a contribution and a positive change.

Notice the thinking patterns

Another method to tackle learned helplessness is to be aware of our own thinking patterns through self-observation and act upon them. This requires a great deal of attention towards our own thoughts, but it can effectively help with self-awareness. To facilitate this process, get into the habit of writing down your negative thoughts when they surface and come up with a counter argument. For instance, if you are asked to complete a task that you believe “won’t change anything”, refute this thought with an argument that can help you rationalise the problem: “While the task might not change the end result, let’s see if I can learn anything from the process”. By doing so, you will identity the hidden benefits and move from a passive to an active state of mind.

Add structure and accountability

Research shows that people are more successful at completing tasks when a specific time frame was given to them. Again, this may sound pretty obvious — aren’t we always given deadlines during a project? We are indeed and the same should be encouraged when a team tries to work on their issues. Once you have listed and understood the factors that you can control, give yourselves realistic goals and time frames for reviews as you would do throughout a design project. On an individual level, we should allow team members to point out to each other when helpless behaviour is being noticed. When it occurs hold each other accountable and don’t wait for the manager or the “others” to do so — it is everyone responsibility to act upon negative behaviour/thinking. Don’t be mistaken, this is not a blaming game. Instead, each team member should feel comfortable enough to share their negative thoughts so that others can support. Everyone will feel as though they are not going through this process alone.

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