Orrin Woodward LIFE Leadership Team

Winner of the 2011 Independent Association of Business Top Leader Award; Orrin Woodward shares his leadership secrets.

Leaders Break the Cycle of Learned Helplessness

Posted by Orrin Woodward on January 9, 2012

Here is a portion of the Adversity Quotient Resolution chapter from my new book RESOLVED: 13 Resolutions for LIFE.  Learned Helplessness, by definition, is a learned behavior; therefore, it can also be an unlearned behavior. This is exactly what leaders do for other people, helping them unlearn poor attitudes, expectations, and thoughts. Let’s make 2012 the year you breakthrough, leaving learned helplessness and mediocrity behind! Sincerely, Orrin Woodward

One such compromise was discovered Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, in 1965, when he stumbled across what the American Psychological Association has called the Landmark Theory of the Century – Learned Helplessness. Learned Helplessness is a belief that what a person does cannot alter his outcomes, that somehow life’s cards are stacked against him. Seligman’s studies created a revolution in the psychology field, displacing Skinner’s hopeless behaviorism (Stimulus controls response). In Pavlov’s original study, where he rang the bell and provided food, showing that dogs would salivate after ringing the bell, seemed to prove that humans only responded to the stimulus provided. From this experiment, Pavlov, and later Skinner, concluded that man lived by learned behaviors only, leaving no room for thinking, responsibility, changing, and therefore, no room for destiny. But Seligman’s experiments altered the field forever with the hopeful cognitive psychology revolution (thinking determines behavior). His experiments revealed, in other words, that what we do matters.

Seligman tested three groups of dogs on Pavlov’s foundation, but with a key variation in the stimulus. Group A dogs were harnessed individually, hearing a bell tone and receiving a harmless electric shock afterwards. Group A dogs could stop the shock by pressing a bar with their nose, which they quickly learned to do. Group B dogs, on the other hand, heard the bell tone and received the shock, but had no ability to stop the electric shocks.  Lastly, Group C received no shocks at all, merely heard the bell tone. The breakthrough occurred on the second day of testing when each of the dogs from the previous day were randomly placed into a shuttle box; a box with a low barrier down the middle.  One at a time the dogs were place in the shuttle box.  Each dog heard the bell tone and received the shock, but the different responses of the three groups initiated the cognitive revolution. Both Groups A and C quickly jumped the middle barrier, eliminating the discomfort of the electric shock. But Group B, contrary to expectations, did not attempt to jump over the barrier, instead the dogs merely crouched down and whimpered. Stoltz describes the breakthrough theory, “What Seligman and others discovered is that these dogs had learned to be helpless, a behavior that virtually destroyed their motivation to act. Scientist have discovered that cats, fish, dogs, rats, cockroaches, mice, and people all are capable of acquiring this trait. Learned helplessness is simply internalizing the belief that what you do does not matter, sapping one’s sense of control.” When a person believes that he cannot change his situation, he won’t even try, becoming hopeless because he believes he is helpless. On the other hand, people can change nearly anything with the right knowledge applied consistently and persistently. Learned helplessness, because it destroys this hope for change, must be exposed for the lie that it is, teaching one’s self and others that change is possible only when a person believes that he can change. Indeed, leaders must rid themselves and their teams from Learned Helplessness as its acid is fatal to all personal growth.

Another compromise that leads to failure and despair is an improper response to the pain inherent in the process of growth.  There are actually two types of pain: one comes from the inside due to the change process; the other comes from the outside due to criticism from those unwilling to make the same changes. Hope is the only fuel capable of burning through both types of pain.  Without hope, either of the pain versions will trump one’s willingness to endure, instead choosing to stop the pain by quitting the journey.  Author Robert Grudin writes, “One might reply that most people who surrender simply lack the ability to get very far.  But it is more accurate to say that ability and intelligence, rightly understood, include a readiness to face pain, while those characteristics which we loosely term ‘inadequacy’ and ‘ignorance’ are typically associated with the avoidance of pain.” When the pain reaches a certain threshold, everything inside of a person screams for relief, but champions, people with high AQ, persevere. Pain is overcome through the continuous focus on one’s purpose. Moreover, achieving greatness will require a faith that can move mountains, an AQ to endure the rising pain in the process, eventually reaching levels of success that more timid souls refuse to believe possible.

8 Responses to “Leaders Break the Cycle of Learned Helplessness”

  1. FoodForTheBrokenhearted said

    Working on un-learning some of my learned behavior. 2012 is going to be an awesome year!!!

  2. Orrin,

    This was one of my favorite chapters and thanks to you and Chris for doing such an incredible job on the LLR talks last Friday. Its interesting to read the chapter and then to hear the author put his passion behind it on the talk was phenomenal. We cant wait for the rebroadcast this Friday.
    The other interesting aspect of the ‘unlearning’ is that the older one is, the more to unlearn. But nothing is impossible for a hungry student and with a community around that person who are also hungry ‘unlearners’. I love the younger generation coming into our education system of LIFE because they will have so much less to unlearn and more importantly the positive momentum shift in their lives because they have less to unlearn.

    God bless you my brother!

  3. Charlie Mallios said

    Your Blogs have help me in all my life and business
    You are the best

  4. Kevin Hamm said


    This is also one of my favorite chapters. I loved the other night when you laid out the formula IQ x EQ x WQ = AQ. If you attach the numbers from the tri-lateral leadership ledger to this equation it makes a good measuring tool. By the results in my life, I know I must have a fairly high AQ but I know I fall short in the EQ category. Looking at the whole picture enables me to see where to focus my efforts on my own personal growth so that I can help others grow in their lives. Independently, I may be functioning at a high level, but interdependence is what is necessary in community building. This truly became clear during your talk on this on Friday night. Thank you.

    Kevin Hamm

  5. Claude hamilton said

    Orrin, your blog is my most favourite to read. Your writing style is awesome and your topics always seem to hit me at the right time!
    I appreciate your commitment to serving people thru this medium, its a great example to myself.

  6. Charlie Mallios said

    Anyone who does anything receives criticism and has inner fear. We must press on, work through. I thank you so much for that blog. It just lightened my load. I remember now, just do whats right and press on. Thanks.

  7. tGbtg said

    I needed this today. Thank you!

  8. Tammy Maney said

    Thankyou Orrin, I only heard of an iq before i started learning from team 5 years ago. One of the 1st books i read was EQ,Emotion Quotion. I now understand how important it is to welcome adversity and keep emotions in check! The more we endure the more we stretch and grow,especially when we go through our obstacles gracefully. God puts them there to help us reach our true potential. it takes courage not to be a victim. I love unlearning…:)

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