The Plague of Helplessness

April 1, 2017

Over the last two blog posts, I have discussed the plagues of loneliness and boredom in the nursing home and how it might look like in the workplace. In this post, I discuss the plague of helplessness. These three plagues are what Dr. Bill Thomas identified as the “true killers” of nursing home life.  I use this framework to think about how these plagues may also be “killers” of organizational work life.  I draw from my past work and research experiences and reflect on how they might exist in my current workplace, a military command.

Helplessness in the Nursing Home

Helplessness is commonly known as being weak or dependent, a loss of power or being powerless and incapacitated. It is not uncommon to understand why most elders in  nursing homes express feeling helpless. In fact, dependency is a criteria for admission into a nursing home where only a medical physician can admit an elder based on their ability to perform their activities of daily living (ADLs). Additionally, many elders may be admitted into the nursing home under false pretenses (e.g. temporarily) or against their will simply because the family or doctor deems them unfit to cognitively make their own decisions.  Therefore, not only is the elder dependent on others to physically take care of them,  they are also helpless in making decisions that have a big impact on their life.

When I talked with residents, helplessness came in the form of what the staff told them what they are allowed and not allowed to do. Residents, especially females, were told multiple times they were “not allowed” to do certain things, even when it was to help their fellow residents. For example, higher functioning female residents wanted to help transport another resident in a wheelchair to their next meal or to an activity.  The staff told them “no” claiming it was a safety precaution, or even against facility policy.  After personal observations during various times throughout my months of research, this policy was not consistent across all units. In fact, no such policy existed according to the facility administrator. However, the safety precaution is not without merit, there are complexities to having residents assisting other residents in wheelchairs, and it takes good judgement on the staff.  This is just one of many examples in which residents were rendered helpless in the name of policy or safety when what they wanted was to simply help a fellow resident in need and to feel competent.

Helplessness in the Workplace

Helplessness in the workplace may not be that much different. In fact, talking with many sailors and civilians at work, helplessness is depicted very similar to some of the residents.  For example, many of the workers claimed that they are not typically encouraged to think, let alone think of new and creative ways to improve how to do things better. They are simply told what to do. And when the rank-and-file have big and bold ideas, they are simply told “no” by their management.  This level of management is also sometimes known as the “frozen middle”, meaning that they are the one’s who put a “freeze” on the ideas from reaching  executive-level leadership, the big decision-makers.

Interestingly, some of the reasons provided as to WHY the frozen middle say “no” is because of a policy, a standard operating procedure (SOP) document, or simply, “because we’ve always done it this way” mentality.  For many, they are risk averse and do not want to upset the way they are used to doing things (i.e. status quo). Similar to the safety precautions that nurses told residents, the frozen middle may also be afraid of failing; afraid that the new idea would not be an improvement; afraid that changing ways of doing things may require more work or more responsibility; and maybe even afraid that that the big, bold idea is exactly what they should have been doing all along.

Why Helplessness Matters

When we are repeatedly told “no” or discouraged to think and act boldly, or creatively, we become conditioned to react defensively.  At first, we may fight it because we are passionate about what we want or we believe it is the right thing to do.  So, we resist and find different ways to get around the system.  However, time plays a key role.  We become conditioned to accepting “no”, we may even expect it, and some may eventually quit trying.

In Martin Seligman’s (1965) experiment of classical conditioning, he demonstrates learned helplessness by a small electrical shock to the dogs after ringing a bell. He does it often enough that the dogs learn to accept the shocks even when they are moved to a different surrounding and provided a means to escape. Instead, the dogs lay down accepting the electric shocks. They are not motivated in the least to change their own condition. They are simply rendered helpless.

When employees perceive themselves to be helplessness, it matters. They choose to not participate, choose to believe they are incompetent, choose to refuse to not provide feedback simply because it is not worth giving or that opinions no longer matter simply because they won’t enact change anyways.  Therefore, disengagement from their purpose and from meaningful work occurs. They simply become compliant and competent enough to meet the requirements needed to complete their job.

The Antidote to Helplessness

The antidote to helplessness is for organizations to provide opportunities for mastery.  Enable people to develop their skills and talents.  Listen to their ideas and feedback when asked how to improve things in their own areas of expertise. They have plenty of ideas! Give them opportunity to generate new and creative ideas and test them so that they can better master their skills.  Furthermore, as a leader, demonstrate your commitment to developing and investing in them both professionally and personally. It takes a personal investment and commitment to mastery as well. By no means is it solely on the organization or leadership to provide these opportunities. One must be committed to developing and mastering their own skills, and also develop and master new ones.  Leaders who continue to invest and commit to mastery both for themselves and others will eliminate the plagues of helplessness in the work place.

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