Have you ever encountered a “victim mindset” in your day-to-day work? Chances are that you have. Whether you find it at the executive or middle-management level, most of us have worked with someone (or possibly multiple people) who personifies this mindset. Your challenge as a leader is figuring out how to handle it.
In order to do so, first clarify what it looks like. Put succinctly, a person demonstrates a victim mindset when he or she views negative outcomes as being caused by the situation or another person, anything other than themselves. Furthermore, this mindset is not something that only shows up with average performers. I have also seen it in individuals who have been identified as high performers. Given that high performers are more productive than average performers, high performers who succumb to the victim mindset create an opportunity cost that can noticeably affect the bottom line.
Here, I will discuss one common form of the victim mindset: the “doubtful victim.” I have dealt with this mindset throughout 20 different industries, and this is how you can recognize and efficiently manage it.
The Doubtful Victim
“I can’t make progress on this initiative because I don’t have enough time and lack the needed resources. What’s even more frustrating is no one seems to understand or care,” Gwen complained. Gwen is a senior leader who has been with her organization for 10 years and was respected for her capabilities and performance. Recently, colleagues have noticed that she seems to see everything as beyond her control. This is especially the case when it involves facing difficult challenges or missing the mark on tasks and responsibilities. As you might have guessed, her performance has started to slip, which has raised the concerns of her boss and colleagues as to whether they can count on her. Gwen has started to have these same concerns.
The Signs and Effects of Doubtful Victims
Gwen embodies the doubtful victim mindset, which can be recognized by some clear signs:
- Dwelling on a difficult situation or negative aspects of it to the point of feeling trapped
- A belief that they are unable to influence a person, group or outcome
- Feeling sorry for themselves
- A self-perception that they are incapable of resolving the issue causing them to be victims
As you can see with Gwen, this form of the mindset impairs the victim’s performance on tasks for which they are responsible. It can also hinder the performance of those around them (e.g., the doubtful victims are not meeting commitments, which subsequently impedes the work of others). Since this mindset affects the self-confidence of doubtful victims, it can also undermine their future productivity when left unchecked. Consequently, you can see how the doubtful victim mindset can prevent people from being top performers.
Catalysts for Doubtful Victims
If doubtful victims have a substantial impact on performance in the workplace, what factors contribute to their mindset? Here are common factors that I have found:
- Individuals are instrumentally involved in an event that does not end well, which shakes their belief in their capabilities (this was the situation with Gwen)
- Individuals are stretched beyond their capacity to handle what comes their way
As you focus on managing people who have been valuable employees but became doubtful victims, start with these successful strategies:
Build off a win. Look for opportunities to help them get a win or be successful in some way. It doesn’t have to be a groundbreaking initiative, just something that they will find meaningful. Provide guidance as needed to help ensure success. Since you want them to feel ownership of the positive result, be careful not to involve yourself too much in the details. Then use this accomplishment as a foundation for moving forward in a positive direction.
Regulate the pipeline. Since doubtful victims can be a result of overwhelming employees with more than they can manage at one time, adjust the volume and complexity of work funneled their way relative to their available bandwidth. Your objective is to find the flow of work that will get them back to optimal engagement and productivity. This doesn’t mean that work flow has to remain exactly the same over time. It just means that you want to ensure they believe they have enough capacity to take it on as it occurs.
Disprove the doubt. Since doubtful victims have lost some of their self-confidence, you want to help them realize that they can get it back. When they get a win, call it out, as well as the impact it had. Then do a quick post-action review with them to show how they achieved the win and how lessons learned from it can be applied elsewhere.
The doubtful victim is one form of a victim mindset that impairs effectiveness in the workplace. Since it is a frame of mind, you can overcome it with the right strategies.
This is the first of a two-part series on how to manage a victim mindset. Look out for part two, which will focus on the “arrogant victim” mindset.
Note: This article originally appeared in Forbes and can be found here.
Ryan Lahti is the managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations being published in early 2019. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti
(Photo: Dismay, Pixabay)