The Cause of Your Helplessness

31 July 2019

“We can’t do it that way, our industry just doesn’t work like that. It’s impossible.” Does this sound familiar?

In many cases, the assumptions you make about your industry are learned through the experiences you have had and are potentially holding you back from discovering creative ways to grow your business.

This is especially the case when you have been in your industry for some time and have become an expert.

You could be falling victim to ‘learned helplessness’.

What is Learned Helplessness?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Martin Seligman and Steven Maire conducted a series of experiments on animals (which would be unheard of today but was a much more common practice in a time when there wasn’t as much animal rights activism).

The experiment involved testing the response of dogs to electrical shocks. They administered shocks to one set of dogs through an electrified floor. The dogs could not predict or control the shocks at all.

They then placed these dogs, along with a new set of dogs that had not been shocked, into a room that was divided by a small barrier that could easily be jumped over. On one side the floor would administer shocks, and the other side would not.

What was curious was that many of the dogs did not even attempt to jump over the barrier when the shocks happened. These were mostly from the first set – the ones had been administered the unpredictable and inescapable shocks beforehand.

They further investigated this by having three sets of dogs:

  • The first set were strapped in a harness but not shocked.
  • The second set were strapped in a harness and shocked but were able to prevent the shock by touching a panel with their nose.
  • The third set were strapped in and shocked with no way to stop it.

When placed in that same room with the small barrier, the dogs from set 1 and 2 quickly learned to jump over the wall. However, the dogs of set 3 did not even try – they had given up on there being any escape from the shocks, despite the new environment.

They had learned in the harness that shocks were just inevitable now, so they stopped seeking ways out from it.

Learned Helplessness is Conditioned into You and Your Team

We don’t need such extreme experiments to be conducted to witness this phenomenon in human psychology as well. I see it all the time.

A good example is the one I started with, “this is just the way our industry is.” This comes with an assumption that your industry is stagnant to some degree – and that you have somehow experienced the full variance of your industry and that that will never change. Just google the word “industry disruption” and you’ll realise how false that is. Many times, you have just stopped seeking ways to change the conditions your industry have historically set.

This conditioned helplessness into seeing things as ‘impossible’ manifests in many other common ways in businesses…

1) Your Team Says They’ve Tried It, It’s Impossible

Your team may tell you, “It’s not working, we have done it that way before and it’s impossible.”

You should trust your team’s expertise. However, when you get something like this as a response, it’s time to stop, step back and see whether you’re missing an opportunity that you and your team have become conditioned to not see.

Usually, it’s because you and your team are focused on what isn’t working – try changing your focus to what is working instead.

When you start looking at that, you may start to identify the opportunities hiding in that overwhelming sea of so-called ‘failures’.

2) Customers Are Still Complaining No Matter What I Do

When customers are constantly complaining, you start to feel like this simply “isn’t working”. It can send you to the verge of just giving up on your business.

Just because you are getting that response at the moment doesn’t mean there is necessarily something fundamentally wrong with your service or product.

You should look more closely at the feedback you are getting to see if there’s something you aren’t seeing – are you reading between the lines to get to the core of the complaints? Are the complaints all coming from the same type of avatar – maybe you’ve got the wrong audience?

You can also try the same perspective shift – focus on the satisfied customers rather than the complaining ones and do more of that!

3) “But I’ve Just Always Done It That Way”

“I’ve just always done it this way, I’m most comfortable doing it this way.”

These are called habits. And while you cannot change your habits, you can learn new habits.

So, if you find yourself stuck in a habit – characterised by the feeling of comfort in what you’re doing – then step back and think about whether that habit might be preventing you from accessing an opportunity.

And if it is, then it might be time to set new habits to let you take advantage of that opportunity instead. You may find yourself not so helplessly bound by what you’ve always done before when you unlock this ability to add new habits to your routine.


Once you identify how this learned helplessness works on you and your team, you might be able to start scrutinizing everything you ever thought was impossible. And for some of them, you might find that you just haven’t ‘looked up’ in a while. The environment has changed and the opportunities may be right in front of you, yours for the taking.

We are looking to invest in good businesses.

If you would like to have an obligation free discussion about selling your business, please email shweta@growthidea.co.uk. You can find more about our investment criterion on https://growthidea.co.uk/private-equity.

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