Moods are contagious. Even just one person with a pessimistic attitude can wreak havoc on a company's atmosphere. As leaders, it's our job to cultivate which mood will become dominant in our business -- pessimism or optimism.
Clearly, we should be striving for the latter. But if you want to create a workplace culture of optimism, you have to empower employees to develop learned industriousness over learned helplessness.
What's the difference between industriousness and helplessness?
Learned helplessness occurs when an individual faces setbacks and begins to assume they will never succeed. They stop trying to change their circumstances and become trapped in a cycle of despair, unable to see a path forward and unable to take responsibility for their predicament. In the workplace, this type of attitude is not only detrimental to the individual but also harmful to the health of those they work with and the company as a whole, as pessimism can lead to poor communication and reduced productivity.
Learned industriousness is the idea that when we put in the effort to overcome a challenge and succeed, we build up our stamina to withstand future challenges. We begin to lose our aversion to difficulty because we prove to ourselves that we are able to put in the effort required to get through it. And as we collect a track record of resilience, we begin to believe in the possibility of our success -- we go after things we might have assumed were out of reach before and have faith in our ability to accomplish difficult tasks.
Can we turn learned helplessness into learned industriousness?
When considering learned helplessness versus learned industriousness, it's easy to see which will create a more optimistic workplace environment. But what do you do if you find yourself confronted with a team that has lapsed into learned helplessness? Can we overcome this and build learned industriousness instead?
It may be possible that some people simply lack the traits, talents, or resources needed to do this. But I believe there are ways leaders can help their employees avoid learned helplessness and gain learned industriousness. Here are six steps to getting there.
1. Create a plan.
For each project or goal, help employees by providing a clear plan and sticking to a strict schedule. Consider the satisfaction that comes when you cross off an item on your to-do list -- with each point of the plan employees successfully execute, they will feel a sense of pride at having fulfilled expectations. A plan also provides a framework for employees to reference when they are feeling stuck. It turns their gaze toward the future and onto the next step they need to take in order to reach their goals.
2. Find a mentor.
A mentor is invaluable for building learned industriousness. Mentors are living, breathing proof that success is possible through hard work. They can provide guidance when an employee feels lost and encouragement when the challenges seem insurmountable.
3. Have patience.
Past experiences may have led employees to learn helplessness, and this can take time to reverse. Be patient and encourage them to take it one step at a time. Do not rush in to take over the work of an employee who is struggling. Instead, provide them with resources and let them know you have their back. Resilience and industriousness are built in every step we take forward, regardless of how big or small it might seem from the outside.
4. Focus on solutions.
Foster optimism by steering employees away from the "what-ifs" and worst-case scenarios and toward future solutions. Ask questions that prompt them to identify the problem at hand and come up with creative solutions, instead of dwelling on the failures of the past.
5. Call it out.
When you notice a team or person spiraling into helplessness, don't let it go unchecked. Without judgment, name what is happening, and help them move out of helplessness and into action. The sooner we can stop helplessness in its tracks, the easier it will be to unroot it.
6. Start early.
Optimism does not mean we blindly believe everything will work out. True optimism means we trust that no setback is permanent, and we treat each challenge as an opportunity to grow. It's born when we no longer allow our past failures to paralyze us and start to believe in the possibility of our future success, regardless of the good, the bad, and the ugly that might come up along the way.
That being said, a culture of optimism and learned industriousness cannot be created out of thin air. We can and should begin to teach learned industriousness before anyone first steps into an office. We can teach it in schools, in our families, and in any activity we partake in. The earlier we start cultivating learned industriousness, the more likely we are to create communities of people who do not balk at a challenge, who inspire others to take action, and who bring optimism into every room they enter.