Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Gretchen was very concerned about one of her star employees, Mary. Mary had been destined for a high level position, but her mother’s death threw her for a loop. The situation got so bad that Mary and her husband had separated.

Gretchen had Mary take advantage of the company’s Employee Assistance Program but she refused. Mary kept claiming that she would turn things around, but there was no evidence she was getting better.  Things came to a head when Mary blew up in an important meeting and stormed out. Gretchen was forced to suspend her until she got help.

Mary didn’t seem to care, and her life was spiraling out of control. Gretchen could no longer stand by and see Mary ruin her life. Gretchen decided to talk with a friend, Trenton, who was a professional counselor without revealing Mary’s personal information.

Trenton:              What you are describing has been identified as learned helplessness.

Gretchen:           What can I do to help?

Trenton:              First, she needs to see a therapist. I know the people in your EAP program and they are excellent.

Gretchen:           I’ve suggested that, but she won’t attend.

Trenton:              Could you make it a condition for lifting her suspension? If you do that, make sure you do that out of genuine caring, not as her boss.

Gretchen:           What might the therapist ask her to do?

Trenton:              There are several possibilities, but I suspect the first thing will be to work on developing an awareness of learned helplessness and what has caused it.  Next, they will probably work on Mary’s self-esteem. This will take a lot of self-reflection on past successes.  Next, they will prepare Mary to reenter the workplace. You will need to help with this. You need to become her hope mentor.

Gretchen:           I’m glad to do that. But what can I do to be a hope mentor?

Trenton:              Help her find joy in her life. Even the smallest of things can bring joy if you help someone find them.

After the conversation with Trenton, Gretchen was resolved to help Mary. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She could have easily done nothing, but her conscience and her faith wouldn’t allow that. As she thought about how important it was to help Mary, she wondered why none of this was covered in her MBA program.

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“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then those are those who see the need to respond. I consider those people my heroes.” – Fred Rogers

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