There is a weird phenomenon happening in human resources departments around the globe. Far too many people in HR are suffering from learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is a psychological condition that commonly describes victims of abuse and neglect. Those poor souls give up on themselves. They see themselves as perpetual victims — even when they’re not. Learned helplessness makes you feel like you have no control, so you give up trying. In many ways, it’s an extreme version of self-handicapping that stems from severe psychological trauma.
Can HR professionals be victims and suffer from learned helplessness? I think so.
Smart people like Dan Pink and Jim Collins have written about the need for individual autonomy and a sense of purpose at work. What happens when workers, particularly in HR and staffing, have been summarily dismissed and verbally attacked for the past 30 years?
Well, I think you see people who know they can’t make decisions and work toward important goals. They stop trying too hard. And if everybody from your CHRO to your CEO wants to make HR great again, it’s easy to see why people start to think, “Am I not great? What’s wrong with me? Why do I suck so much?”
Not to steal a line from Michelle Obama, don’t let anybody tell you that you need to make HR great again. You’re already great. A lot of the nasty language used around HR and recruiting is sexist, biased and lazy.
But most line-level HR professionals harbor serious doubts about their abilities. When I travel around the world, I’m challenged to answer these questions:
“How can I be brave and bold when all of my ideas are ignored?”
“How can I stand up to ethical violations when it’s clear that I have no power?”
“Why is it that it’s okay for other departments to give feedback to HR, but I’m not allowed to give feedback to other underperforming executives and employees?”
“How is it that people who don’t do HR can come into my organization and tell me what I’m doing wrong?”
“Why do I never see my CHRO? Why doesn’t she sit with us?”
“When is it okay for HR to take a stand?”
“Why are people the most important part of an organization but HR can’t get the proper budget to help the company achieve its work-related goals?”
I stand on stage and remind people that (sometimes) a job is just a job. It’s not the sum of what makes you great. Yes, you can try to work collaboratively. You can be smart about what battles you pick. But if you keep hitting a brick wall, maybe it’s time to quit.
Quitting isn’t a failure. Living in perpetual victimhood is a failed state.
Learned helplessness impacts people, families, and even communities. I also believe it can affect organizations. When someone feels as if they have no voice and cannot affect change — and they perceive themselves as a victim of unfair or unfortunate circumstances that are beyond their control — learned helplessness effects the financial and mental health of your company.
So if you feel helpless and stuck, know that you’re alone. But also know that it’s on you to get yourself unstuck. Take courses in persuasive communications. Learn a new skill that makes you more effective in your current role. Or find a new job.
Change your thinking, change your life. What makes you feel like a victim in HR might be true, but it also might be in your mind. If you’re looking for a sign to help you feel less powerless, this is it. Take control. Take a new path. Take a break. Just stop coming to HR conferences looking for an external solution. Nobody can save you from a bad job in HR except yourself.