Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. —Martin Seligan

Many challenges and roadblocks hinder the successful execution of major change, but few rival the obstructive power unleashed when people act as—or allow themselves to be treated as—victims. Victimization is a disease that destroys the confidence a person needs to sustain a transformative journey, and it has reached epidemic proportions among not only targets, but sponsors and agents as well. Instead of feeling they can successfully navigate the turbulence of change, those who feel victimized generally don’t see their aspirations realized.

Closer to home, victims within our own practitioner community are now so prevalent that a sense of powerlessness is fast becoming the norm for our industry. It’s bad enough that many experienced change agents display symptoms of victimization, but the problem is compounded by the fact that we are the role models and mentors for the next generation entering our field. My fear is that if we don’t come to terms with this crippling way of thinking and acting, our profession will orchestrate its own decline in impact. Over time, we’ll become less and less influential and eventually irrelevant to leaders serious about executing their initiatives. We have no hope of battling the plague of victimization among our clients if we are carriers of the blight ourselves.                                                                                    

The Basics of the Disease

Depending on the context in which it is used, the term “victimization” has many different interpretations, so I won’t validate or refute how others define it. As I’m applying it here, a person displays a victim mentality when he or she feels trapped in negative circumstances with no option but to endure. Influencers are the antithesis of victims. These are people who believe they can help shape the outcome of negative circumstances by the choices they make.

Victims Influencers
Think they are on the receiving end of external forces (people, things, events, etc.) that determine how things unfold See themselves as one of the key influential forces in play as situations develop
Believe that, because of the surrounding conditions, they are helpless Believe that, regardless of the surrounding conditions, they can have a bearing on what will transpire
Tend to deny/avoid what they don’t like, reject/attack what they can’t change, protect/fortify their existing positions, and/or retreat into covert action or withdraw from any engagement altogether. Tend to openly acknowledge/surface what they don’t like, embrace/accommodate what they need to succeed, open/expand their boundaries, and act in ways that move things forward

Some people lack the ingenuity to formulate solutions to address unpleasant situations. These are not victims. They may be in over their heads (missing the necessary intelligence and/or creativity), or just inept, but they aren’t being victimized by their circumstances. I’m not suggesting these people don’t experience adverse consequences. I’m simply saying they don’t fit the definition of “victim” I’m outlining here.

To qualify for victim status, as I’m using the term, a person must recognize that there are alternatives to pursue, but be unwilling to explore them because it would require decisions or actions they are not inclined to engage.

  • As much as they may hate what is happening, victims see the alternative path as too expensive to take on. In this sense, “expensive” isn’t limited to costing too much money (although this might be a factor). A victim could be someone who thinks changing the way things are involves too much hard work; might incur too much ill will or retaliation; or risks jeopardizing his or her job, power, prestige, a key relationship etc. These are only a few of the currencies that could be involved when a person is deciding whether or not to try to affect what is currently going on.
  • Although victims declare they have no options, it’s more accurate to say there are none they are willing to pay for. Just because someone doesn’t like the available choices doesn’t mean choices don’t exist. A classic symptom of victimization is when a person acknowledges that “theoretically” there are avenues to pursue to address the negative situation he or she faces but designates them as infeasible because they’re “too expensive.”
  • Once an option is labeled impossible or unattainable, it is typically treated as nonexistent. Whereas the uncreative or inept don’t even recognize that options besides the status quo are available, the victim acknowledges alternatives but then swiftly disregards them and operates as if there is nothing to do but suffer under the present conditions.

Victimization isn’t an isolated phenomenon.

  • I’m not talking about the temporary feeling of being at a loss for what to do that we all experience from time to time. Everyone has confronted unexpected, negative situations and felt helpless for a while. For the chronically disenfranchised, however, this sense of powerlessness is not transitory. It is a long-term, sometimes even lifelong encounter.
  • At a certain point, helplessness becomes self-fulfilling. For example, even if some aspect of a negative situation is mitigated after action is taken, people deeply rooted in victimization tend to attribute the positive outcome to luck or dynamics outside their own capacity to shape. This is in sharp contrast to the influencer’s view that he or she is an integral part of whatever happens. Whether it is the status quo being maintained or a resolution being crafted, they feel they are an active ingredient in the outcome.

People who, on an extended basis, feel ineffectual at piloting their own future tend to become resentful and alienated.

  • Because they feel trapped, victims spend a great deal of their time and energy complaining about who or what outside themselves controls their life. They blame their predicaments on forces beyond their influence. Direct action to alter the course of things doesn’t seem viable, so they replace it with protest and criticism.
  • Sometimes the carping is overt, sometimes it is expressed under the radar, but what is important to highlight is that victims think resorting to disparaging comments and actions is their only hope of exercising any control in the situation.
  • Influencers, on the other hand, feel engaged—invested in creating an environment where some degree of success is possible, and eager to offer perspectives and ideas in support of moving forward.

Because they believe they have no choice, victims often are involved in activities they know will result in failure. They fulfill their own low-esteem prophecy by taking on tasks that are doomed and subsequently reinforce for themselves and others that they can’t succeed. Influencers see themselves and their reputation as a valuable resource that must be protected. They are not only good at what they do, they are selective about when and where they do it so as not to tarnish their image with too many and the wrong kind of failed efforts. Influencers are risk takers but they pursue dicey situations with forethought, not on a whim.

Finally, like most experiences in life, victimization is a continuum that kicks in with varying frequency, at different levels of intensity, and under assorted circumstances. That said, a person seldom feels trapped with no options in only one area of life (i.e., only at work or only with the same person or set of circumstances). Usually, if a person falls into a victim mindset in one setting, it will likely show up in other areas of his or her life as well.

It’s a plague

Victimization is so prevalent today that it has become a defining characteristic of our times, yet it is sometimes difficult to see the devastating effect it has on individuals, organizations, and the whole of society. We live in an era where we hardly notice when people shirk their responsibilities, expect something or someone else to take care of their problem, or go underground with their complaints and suggestions because it would be too expensive to openly try to do something themselves. Victimization is becoming our norm, in part, because we are adjusting to its commonness. The tolerance for capitulating to this kind of mindset as an acceptable standard has reached unprecedented highs.

In virtually all aspects of society, the level of courage and discipline required to be an influencer seems to be in short supply and is becoming more rare all the time. At its current rate of growth, the victim mindset may become dominant in some settings where the majority of the people feel marginalized—including those in leadership positions. The result would be victims leading victims…not a formula for an optimistic outlook for our species.

In the next post, I’ll focus on the implications when victimization plays itself out in organizational settings. In the third post, I’ll address how change exacerbates the likelihood and intensity of victimization, and how change practitioners inadvertently contribute to the problem. In the last post of the series, I’ll offer ways to limit victim tendencies in ourselves and others while fostering influencer thinking and behavior as much as possible.