Learned Team Hopefulness: Subtle Shifts Lead to Powerful Possibilities

April 23, 2018 | Ben Bratt | HCI
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In the Team Elements coaching practice, when we’re coaching teams who are starting to dig in, there are these little, powerful moments. You can often sense them coming. A focused calmness takes hold, people sit up a little straighter or literally lean in, fidgeting stops and eyes widen.

It’s a defining moment when team members begin to sense that they have far more control over events than they previously realized; that they aren’t hostages of any situation or history; that collectively they have substantial capability to shape their world. They can see alternative futures, and they’re about to claim positive ownership of something powerful, no matter how small.

In essence, they’ve become hopeful. From a coach’s perspective, that moment is incredibly exciting. And from the team member’s perspective, it begins to set the stage for everything that comes next.

Up until now…

Prior to this moment, the team may have exhibited some mix of passivity, reluctance or blaming.

Engage in some transformative actions? “No, thanks,” the team might reply. There’s no need.

Any actions the team might choose would be a mere pantomime of authentic team action.

Build on a gathering sense of momentum? “No, thanks.” There’s no point.

There isn’t any momentum to gather in this current state of stasis. The team’s been embedded in a shared belief that they were helpless to shape the internal landscape of the team, or even further, to impact the world outside of the team.

But all of that is simply a prelude to a critical, often nearly imperceptible, moment of inflection: the moment of learning to be hopeful. Those small changes in body language and engagement reveal that team members are becoming aware of what’s possible. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s one of the most powerful things a team can do.

The power of the positive

The theory of “learned helplessness” first arrived in the mid-1960s through the work of psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier. In their experiments they showed that organisms learn to be helpless when they’re presented with adverse stimuli that they cannot escape and believe they have no control over, and thus give up trying.

Fifty years later, the two psychologists have revised their theory. What they now believe is that the sense of helplessness that occurs in these conditions isn’t learned. Rather, it’s a very natural outcome of our how we’re wired neurologically.

What can be learned, rather, is hope. Using a different part of our brains (the prefrontal cortex), we can learn “the habit of expecting that future bad events will not be permanent, global, and uncontrollable, rather they will be temporary, local, and controllable,” and we can build the perception that one can “harness the unpredictability in one's environment.”

Fascinating! The very thing we need the most in many team situations is entirely learnable. So, how can we begin to learn to hope?

How can we bring ourselves to this tipping point?

It would be so easy if there was an app to download or a guru’s conference we could attend. We’d find ourselves suddenly filled with courage and hope, as if those can be downloaded or poured in. As one might guess, it’s not to be.

The paradox is that a team deep in the experience of learned helplessness can find – and learn - hope in the only place it will ever exist: in itself. It’s in each person’s sense of self and belief in individual (and collective) agency that we find fertile ground for hope. We can choose to believe that our problems are not rooted in how “finance is being too tough on budgets” or “those idiots in HR are taking all the fun out it,” but rather that “we can choose to see these issues as temporary and surmountable,” and “we can take action in the face of them.”

How? Here’s an interesting challenge: Get your team together for just one hour and take up these three questions:

  1. What are the forces we currently believe control our actions or limit our impact? How can we challenge ourselves to reframe those forces as simply inputs that can be managed, reframed, or reimagined?
  2. How would our outcomes be different if we managed those inputs in a way that reduced our reactivity and helplessness in the face of unpredictability?
  3. What small actions could we commit to doing that would make this our new reality, rejuvenate in us a sense of hope, and enhance our sense of ownership for this team?

Based on those three questions:

  1. Talk about those things at your next team meeting and see if there are any self-limiting beliefs that are naturally manifesting as helplessness rather than learned hopefulness.
  2. Play with the idea of transforming helplessness into hopefulness.
  3. Discover the small acts of courage you can take individually and as a team.
  4. And while you’re at it, choose one or two of these TED talks that induce a dose of optimism. Optimism is a great fertilizer for hope.