Neuroscience has the antidote for managers to address an overlooked behavior that blocks success

By November 4, 2023ISDose

Experiencing a sense of low autonomy over time is a top contributor to employee disengagement and something that can be recognized and resolved through neurobiology.

Learned helplessness is lurking in offices—and it’s contributing to employee disengagement.

Decades of study results from leading research companies like Gallup and McKinsey have proven that engaged employees produce better business outcomes. In fact, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report estimated that the 79% of employees who are not engaged or are actively disengaged cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity.

The report found a majority of the world’s employees are “quiet quitting” (or putting in the minimal amount of effort required to perform their jobs) and employee stress remains at record highs.

As an epigenetic coach, I work with companies big and small to assess company culture and improve employee engagement to promote better business outcomes via a neurobiological approach. Experiencing a sense of low autonomy over time—or learned helplessness—is a top contributor to employee disengagement and something that can be recognized and resolved through neurobiology.

If you’re an executive, leader, or manager, you can prevent a downward spiral in individual and organizational performance by learning to recognize and offer relief for learned helplessness. Here’s how.


Helplessness is often marked by a sense of powerlessness or disempowerment to change a situation. Learned helplessness occurs when we are conditioned to feel powerless via prolonged exposure to stressful events that are perceived as uncontrollable. We often find learned helplessness in experiences of adversity, injustice, oppression, discrimination, psychological or physical health issues, or career setbacks (to name a few).

Some examples of workplace circumstances that contribute to learned helplessness are layoffs, moving targets from management, and a lack of clarity in strategy from leadership. Exclusionary experiences in the workplace—when employees feel dismissed, interrupted, unwelcome, disrespected, or unvalued—are also a culprit behind learned helplessness.


When elements of uncontrollability are present in a workplace for long periods of time, employees experience negative physical effects and accompanying psychological responses. These negative states often lead to unsatisfied workplace contributors who either refuse or are unable to promote successful business outcomes.

Neurobiologically, as an employee’s stress from uncontrollability in the workplace builds, one of three important chemical messenger levels could plummet: dopamine, the hormone responsible for motivation; norepinephrine, the chemical which manages the fight-or-flight response; and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter that helps to control feelings of stress and fear.

Some psychological outcomes linked to prolonged experiences of these neurobiological responses are anxiety, depression, phobias, and loneliness. Associated behaviors include moving from action to confront or avoid danger (fight-or-flight state) to immobilization (freeze state). This state of inaction can cause people to overlook or be unmotivated to seek opportunities for relief, leading to low self-esteem, passivity, frustration, lack of effort, or giving up.

Here’s an applied example: Recently your company has unfortunately had to make a round or two of layoffs. Because heavier workloads and job security feel beyond their control, employees may get frustrated by the amount of work they have to perform to compensate for the cuts and seek other employment, or they may stop making an effort if they feel their performance does not contribute to job security. Both circumstances leave the company with gaps to fill and have a direct impact on your potential profit.

This is another common scenario: The executive team charges everyone with working to secure a specific number in annual revenue (or other key organizational goal). However, a clear picture of how they envision the company achieving that goal is not shared. Without distinct direction, divergent strategies and a lack of collaboration between individuals or departments occurs over the next several months. As a result, some employees feel defeated by the lack of personal control over quelling the chaos and reaching the goal, while others become passive or freeze because they feel a poor sense of personal agency when there isn’t a unified plan to follow. Others may flat out give up over time—giving you a group of workplace contributors who are no longer able to function as the group needed to reach a common goal.


For employers, managers, and leaders, avoiding learned helplessness in your employees begins with doing your best to ensure you’re providing clear, consistent goals, a culture of inclusivity, and an average to high level of workplace stability or reliability. Prioritize communicating to your employees that mental health and wellbeing are important in and out of the workplace, and remind them of the resources available to them. Have public conversations about workplace conflict or hardship and maintain genuine openness to employee feedback by providing direct, data-backed responses to their questions or concerns whenever possible.

While it’s impossible to promise employees they’ll feel in control of every element that factors into their work, teams, relationships, and professional ambitions, learning to recognize when employees are demonstrating signs of overwhelm is an effective measure against allowing a perceived lack of control in the workplace to go too far.


If you suspect that colleagues or employees are caught in the grip of learned helplessness and are feeling out of control, the good news is there is an antidote: tactical empathy. Practicing tactical empathy allows us to self-regulate by following three steps—noticing we are feeling a certain way, naming what we are feeling, and managing that felt experience.

The second step, naming what feeling we are experiencing, activates our prefrontal cortex (where cognitive processes occur) forcing us to find clarity around our emotions and their stimuli. This clarity sends a calming signal back to our amygdala (which coordinates responses to your environment), which then communicates to our vagus nerve that things are all right (the vagus nerve runs down our entire body and controls our responses to safety versus danger or life-threatening situations).

In short, naming a feeling we are experiencing leads to cognitive regulation of emotion and allows us to return to equanimity to reclaim our personal agency in managing the felt experience. Exercising tactical empathy allows us to move from thinking, “But I can’t control anything at work, what am I supposed to do?” to naming and being able to take action to manage our learned helplessness.


Tactical empathy is rather like a panacea for negative outcomes that hinge on neurobiological responses to workplace toxicity. Unfortunately, workplace toxicity is pervasive, hence I write about tactical empathy so often.

In the case of learned helplessness, tactical empathy allows us to reclaim controllability. Noticing, naming, and managing what we are feeling forces us to connect back into our bodies and sit with our uncomfortable feelings. It’s masterfully sitting in discomfort that allows us to navigate our internal landscape and neurochemically shift our negative experiences from a stress fight-or-flight response—or a freeze collapse state—and begin behaving as if we are not utterly helpless in changing our situation. Tactical empathy pushes us into a motivated, action-oriented and engaged state, allowing us to perform and create an experience of success.

I like to think of tactical empathy as the magic that will reengage your workforce. Recognizing that neurochemistry is not just tied to personal wellbeing but the success of business is critical: Every employee in a workplace has the ability to increase or decrease company profit because of neurochemistry.

Ultimately, taking a neurochemical approach to solve workplace toxicity will rewire your teams and build your company culture, restore employee wellbeing, sustain or even boost performance, and improve your business outcomes.


Guest Author: Rajkumari Neogy (he/she) is the CEO of ibelong, a platform offering on-demand resources for workplaces dedicated to building inclusive and resonant cultures, and is the author of The WIT Factor: Shifting the Workplace Paradigm by Becoming Your Optimal Self.

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