Learned Helplessness: Managing setbacks and negativity

In medical terms, “Learned Helplessness” is a psychological condition where an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they can do so. In simple terms, a smoker may repeatedly try and fail to quit. He may grow frustrated and come to believe that nothing he does will help and therefore stop trying altogether. Discovering the loss of control essentially elicits a passive response to the harmful situation.

One of the biggest challenges leaders today face is knowing how to interpret their failures or even difficult situations and people. Sometimes leaders’ points of references are so negatively charged that they begin to believe that nothing they do will make things better. Some leaders, when faced with really tough situations and people, actually believe they are helpless. Their reaction, as understandable as it might be, is nothing more than a way to avoid fear and to preserve their self-concept in the face of a tough challenge. When leaders indulge in these types of defense mechanisms, they block their ability to act in constructive ways, as well as their ability to solve issues and to mature as executives. This destructive mindset in psychological terms is a form of learned helplessness, and it is at the root of immature leadership behavior.

So the real question is…… How do we fight it? How do we become aware and not fall into this unknowing trap?

Saying “I can do it”, “I can succeed” or even “I am worthy of success” repeatedly can give some amount of motivating boost, however circumstances in front of you are indicating opposing bias. Hence, this technique might not be enough to alleviate the perceived negativity around you. The possible way to create positively charged references is to create successes. And you cannot create successes without taking a risk, without taking action aimed at providing support for your thoughts.

For the leaders or future leaders who need to build reference reservoirs, great benefit can be derived by searching for positively charged references outside their own reservoirs. In this case, you—the leader or future leader— must seek out, identify with, and vicariously experience the positively charged references of those who have successfully met challenges like those you are facing [“If They Can .. So, Can I” Attitude]. The process begins with your reaching out and interviewing other successful leaders and asking them to explain, in real specific terms and in vivid detail, the challenges they have faced, what they did to gain a better understanding of their challenges, and what they did to work through them, including what they were thinking, feeling, and doing. I have found that this kind of mentoring element, if done in vivid detail, can have a powerful vicarious impact on the leader who lacks critical references.

This brings us to another differentiation between “Mature Leader” and “Immature Leader”. Honestly, it takes time, effort, experience, energy and investment to migrate from being immature to mature. Let us compare how both sets of leader’s view failure and setbacks in their own perspectives:

Mature Leader

Immature Leader

Mature leaders experience setbacks, they refuse to perceive futility of actions. When mature leaders fail, they interpret the pain associated with the setback to be less permanent All too often when immature leaders experience setbacks, they perceive their efforts as futile and develop the terminal discouragement of learned helplessness.
Mature leaders see and phrase their setbacks as temporary like “Alright, this is not working, what should we improve on.” Or “What did we learn, how can we do things better next time” While immature leaders use words such as always (“It’s always going to be this bad”) or never (“It’s never going to improve”)
Mature leaders will interpret positive situations as being permanent Immature leaders succeed, they tend to see their success as being temporary
Mature leaders, on the other hand, tend not to overly personalize or project; rather, they adopt a problem-solving mindset: “Why did this happen?” “What are we going to do to solve the problem? Immature leaders tend to associate their setbacks and accompanying pain in personal terms: “It’s my fault!” “I should have done this!” Or they externalize the blame for their setback: “It’s your fault!” “You are responsible for this!”

In a nutshell, “Learned Helplessness” is a noted psychological condition and can be fought easily. Following points in summary:

– Building positive references and experiences around you. You can rely on positive experiences of others.

– Embrace setbacks positively, Not always past can predict the future.

– In good days, do build relationships and associations with Mentors and learned people who can help you when you are feeling down and overwhelmed with situations around you.

Nihit M



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13 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness: Managing setbacks and negativity”

  1. Dr PM Mallick

    Very well analysed. The mature person is always in control of his emotions, the immature is a pawn to his emotions.

  2. Ashwin Chandak

    Maturity is relative term.. it depends on the situation…

    Balance defines Equilibrium… wether it is life, success, leadership position or happiness. When balance breaks immaturity sets in.

    Your view point is well appriciated


    A matured leader both in the situation of success or failure sees within himself. He repeats the success principles and deliberate the actions which have led to the failure. You see, one thing is clear that root cause analysis for many failures do not lead to a cause, but, it definitely gives possible solutions. In my view , he is called a matured leader who takes responsibility of the situation and analyses the possibilities around . Leader uses the leading ( successfulness) indicators as inputs and lagging indicators ( below set mark of performance) to measure the performance. Anyway neither failure nor success is a permanent experience.

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Who is Nihit Mohan?

Nihit Mohan is a banker, author and a TEDx speaker. He was born & raised in the cradle of cultural diversity of India, & currently resides in Singapore. He did his education from seven schools spread across multiple cities & cultures. He is an engineer by education & has made a successful career in the financial services industry. He hails from a family of engineers, bureaucrats & academicians.

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