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Learned Helplessness – Five Ways To Overcoming Inertia In Management

Written by: Anthony Moss-Zobel, PCC (ICF), Senior Level Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Anthony Moss-Zobel, PCC (ICF)

In modern business, one of the greatest impediments to progress is not only external market forces or regulatory challenges, but rather an insidious mindset that pervades organizations: learned helplessness among managers.

Puppet on a string

Learned helplessness is a concept originally discovered in psychology through animal experiments (Dr. Martin Seligman et al). Concerning organizations and schools, let’s describe this phenomenon as a systemic pattern wherein managers, instead of actively seeking solutions and driving change, become resigned to the status quo, attributing shortcomings solely to external factors beyond their control.

This learned helplessness significantly not only stifles innovation and progress but also perpetuates a culture of excuses and inertia, impeding the institution’s ability to adapt, thrive, or survive.

Learned helplessness, refers to a state where individuals feel or believe they are powerless to control or influence their circumstances, even when opportunities for change exist. It manifests as a pervasive belief among managers that they lack agency in effecting meaningful change within their respective domains. Instead of proactively tackling these challenges, they become overwhelmed and succumb to a defeatist mentality, attributing failures to external factors such as regulations, budget constraints, or market conditions.

Spreading learned helplessness

Like a contagious virus, learned helplessness spreads insidiously within an organization. When managers exhibit this mindset, their subordinates observe and internalize it, perpetuating the cycle of passivity and resignation. It doesn’t take a lot of time until learned helplessness becomes ingrained in the organizational culture, manifesting in responses like, "We've always done it this way," or "It's beyond our control." Such responses serve as convenient defences against accountability, keeping managers from the discomfort of confronting challenges head-on.

Overcoming learned helplessness

This requires a concerted effort to shift the organizational mindset towards one of empowerment and accountability. Strategies to break the detrimental cycle:

  1. Foster a growth mindset: Encourage managers to adopt a growth mindset, wherein challenges are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth rather than insurmountable barriers. Emphasize the importance of resilience and adaptability in navigating uncertainty and change.

  2. Promote ownership and accountability: Cultivate a culture of ownership and accountability, where managers take responsibility for driving change within their spheres of influence. Establish clear goals and expectations and hold individuals accountable for their performance and outcomes.

  3. Encourage creativity and innovation: Create a supportive environment that values creativity and innovation. Encourage managers to think outside the box and explore unconventional solutions to problems, rather than defaulting to familiar excuses.

  4. Provide resources and support: Equip managers with the resources, tools, and support they need to succeed. Invest in training and development programs that enhance managerial skills and foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

  5. Lead by example: Leadership plays a crucial role in shaping organizational culture. Leaders must model the behaviors and attitudes they wish to see in others, demonstrating resilience, adaptability, and a proactive approach to problem-solving.

Decades of research by leading psychologists have shed light on the cognitive and behavioral mechanisms underlying learned helplessness and its implications for mental health and well-being. Additionally, organizational scholars such as Chris Argyris and Peter Senge have explored the phenomenon of organizational inertia and its impact on organizational change and effectiveness.


Learned helplessness poses a significant threat to organizational success, undermining innovation, productivity, and resilience. By recognizing and addressing this mindset at its root, organizations can unlock the full potential of their managers and employees, fostering a culture of empowerment, accountability, and continuous improvement. Breaking free from the chains of learned helplessness is not easy, but the rewards of a more adaptive, agile, and resilient organization are well worth the effort.

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Anthony Moss-Zobel, PCC (ICF) Brainz Magazine

Anthony Moss-Zobel, PCC (ICF), Senior Level Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Anthony Moss-Zobel, PCC (ICF), is a Doctorate of Business Administration student. He leads Neuro-led Coaching & Consulting, specializing in personal & professional cognitive neuroscience coaching and training in the public and private sectors. He also is an associate lecturer in team leadership, communication & HRM. He partners with NeuroEducation experts in France, the USA, and Africa to bring neuroscience insights to the classroom which has been proven highly effective. His work in Ghana and recent collaboration with Consortium International pour la Formation et la Recherche Coopérative en Education (CIFORCE) and l’Institut Africain pour la Neuro Education et la Ludopédagogie (IANEL) brings NeuroEducation across West Africa.



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