Over the past few years I’m sure you’ve noticed the prevalence of discussion about grit, growth mindset, and the impact of cognitive psychology in our practice. What I often found when I dug into sources is that Martin Seligman is frequently cited. The inventor, if you will, of learned helplessness, his seminal work Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1990) articulates his teachings and can be understood as the source of today’s cognitive psychology and also as a way to re-examine our leadership paradigms.
First, a look at learned helplessness. The original experiment involved administering shocks to dogs. When a dog learned that nothing it could do helped it escape a shock, the dog didn’t move. The dog effectively learned helplessness. Seligman went on to expand the experiments to human behavior and proved that learning extends beyond behaviorism (the accepted philosophy of learning in the 1970s). When we learn that nothing we can do makes a difference, we learn to do nothing.
Seligman links learned helplessness to pessimism/optimism. If learned helplessness becomes part of my life (events beyond my control are personal, pervasive, and permanent), then I adopt more of a pessimistic view. In other words, this philosophy would result in statements such as “This always happens to me,” “this affects my whole life,” and “nothing will ever change.”
It’s important to understand that Carol Dweck’s work on promoting growth mindset is resting on the foundation of Seligman’s Learned Optimism. By empowering young people to take control of their lives in order to change their temporary circumstances, we are looking to reverse the impact of learned helplessness and pessimism.
Seligman’s work has tremendous value in re-evaluating our leadership paradigm. There are three categories which determine optimism/pessimism: personal, pervasive, and permanent. It’s worthwhile to examine how a leader frames events and applies these categories.
For example, what if average ACT test scores drop significantly in a certain year? This is a PR crisis for your school! Take a look at how Seligman’s categories can help you frame them:
1. Personal: Is blame the default reaction in your school culture? Are you blaming people? Are people blaming the principal for his/her leadership? The English and/or math teachers? Or the students themselves (“not the brightest group”). An effective leader directs attention to what the data reveals and away from blaming people. Look to diagnose the problem and then try to develop solutions.
2. Pervasive: Does this indicate a significant problem in your school? I hope not. I hope you are treating this as only one indicator of success. You might need to identify the other measures of success such as: scores on other tests, acceptance rates at universities, scholarship money, GPA, service hours, extracurricular success. Try to move attention away from that one measure and make it seem isolated.
3. Permanent: Do people tend to think that this is part of a broader problem that cannot be changed? Move people away from this type of thinking by focusing on the temporary nature of this problem. Focus on longer-term trends (average scores over a 10 year period? Enrollment? College success?). Your job is to find these examples and communicate them.
I have found that Seligman’s categories help me reframe challenges and give me a more positive outlook. I encourage you to re-examine obstacles in your life and to make time to read Learned Optimism.