by David Rock and Jay Dixit
The world increasingly feels like it’s spiralling out of control, with a daily onslaught of grim news and economic anxiety. It’s no wonder that 31% of Americans are experiencing depression and anxiety — three times as many as before the pandemic — and nearly 50% of the workforce say they aren’t going to go above and beyond for their jobs.
And while some say so-called “quiet quitting” is about drawing healthy boundaries between work and personal time, actions such as withdrawing from your team, limiting communication only to what’s strictly required, and staying silent rather than contributing in meetings are “classic indicators of diminished motivation and low engagement.”
While the term may be new, what’s happening here really is just the latest expression of a fundamental aspect of human nature: In the face of persistent and inescapable stressors, people often respond by simply giving up. When nothing is in your control, why even try?
Scientists call this “learned helplessness.” After you’ve endured an aversive situation in which nothing you do matters, you tend to remain passive and despondent — even in new situations in which you do have control.
One study shows how this bears out. Researchers gave students a sheet of paper with three anagrams to solve. Unbeknownst to the students, there were two different versions of the sheet. On one, the first two anagrams were easy; on the other, they were unsolvable. The third anagram on both sheets was the same easily solvable word.
Students who easily unscrambled the first two words on the first sheet also readily solved the third one. But students who encountered an unwinnable situation — staring at two anagrams with no possible solution — were stuck and frustrated, and they didn’t even attempt the third one. As one student put it: “Nothing worked, so why try?”
What Drives “Learned Helplessness”?
Learned helplessness was originally identified in the 1960s in a famous psychological experiment that wouldn’t be permitted in a modern lab. Martin Seligman — the psychologist whose later work launched the subfield known as positive psychology — restrained dogs on an electrified platform where they received electric shocks to their hind legs. Over time, learning they were powerless to free themselves, the dogs gave up trying.
When Seligman changed the conditions, moving the dogs onto an electrified metal plate they could easily have escaped, the dogs didn’t even try to get away. Assuming they were still powerless, they curled up on the floor, whimpered, and passively accepted their fate. They never discovered that escape was within their grasp.
Seligman concluded that humans respond the same way dogs do. Assuming nothing we do matters, we stop trying to improve our circumstances.
More recent research, however, caused Seligman to do an about-face on his initial interpretation. Steven Maier, a researcher involved with Seligman’s original experiment, later switched fields and became a neuroscientist. And his research suggests that helplessness isn’t just a response to enduring misfortunes beyond our control. Rather, passivity is our default hardwired response to prolonged adversity. When subjected to sustained negative experiences, the brain assumes control isn’t present — an innate response Maier and Seligman renamed “default passivity.”
The implication is profound because it means that learned helplessness really isn’t learned. Instead, shutting down and passively accepting the status quo is the normal human response to prolonged aversive events. Like a pandemic that never ends. Or a job you hate but are unable to leave.
Default passivity offers an explanation for the quiet quitting phenomenon. People have been stressed for years, but they don’t have the freedom to just up and quit. Feeling powerless to escape a stressful situation, they respond in a way we now know is normal and predictable: by becoming passive. They don’t contribute ideas in meetings. They don’t take the initiative to switch teams or proactively seek out more meaningful work. They do only what they need to do to not get fired.
Combatting Default Passivity in the Workplace
Fortunately, passivity doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. The original studies found that helplessness can be reversed. To test this, Seligman and his colleagues dragged the helpless dogs off the electrified platform and onto the other side where they were safe. After a few rounds of being moved to the other side, the dogs snapped out of their passivity and began responding entirely on their own. This intervention successfully reversed helplessness in 100% of dogs — and their recovery was “complete and lasting.”
So how can organizations reverse passivity among employees to reduce quiet quitting? By giving employees a direct experience of autonomy — the feeling of having control over their life and choices. Managers can do this in two ways.
First, you can look for opportunities to give employees more autonomy. When possible, let them choose their own schedules and deadlines, and whether to work from home or the office. Let them make their own decisions about who to collaborate with, how to allocate their time, and how to approach getting their work done. Ask for their input on goals and strategies, and give them a voice in how decisions get made.
In addition to giving employees additional autonomy, encourage them to exercise the autonomy they already have by making their own decisions whenever possible to develop what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” The brain craves choices, and studies show that even just the expectation of getting to make a choice activates the ventral striatum, a brain region associated with anticipation and excitement. Encourage employees to switch things up, take on work that interests them, and focus on learning. Maybe that means choosing their own assignments or taking on more challenging work in order to learn new skills.
Whatever an employee’s role, let them know you welcome their ideas on how they can make their work more meaningful in ways that still serve the needs of the team and the organization. That way, when things get stressful and employees feel bleak and hopeless, they’ll take action to improve their situation instead of suffering in silence.
Remember that quiet quitting happens when employees feel trapped. The more freedom you can give them, the less they’ll feel the need to respond in unproductive ways.
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