Strategy

22nd May 2014

Learned Helplessness by Ian Kinnery

Learned helplessness is a psychological term associated with the work of US psychologist Martin Seligman. It refers to the way animals have of adapting and learning to display helpless behavior. The natural state is for animals to move away from danger and pain but what Seligman noticed in his experiments was that with repeated exposure some animals would stop moving away and simply learn to endure and suppress the natural state of helping themselves.

Man has a natural instinct to be curious, to solve problems, to get better but very often in the hierarchical, macho world that we create in business we teach each other to become helpless and to suppress those positive traits.

How do we do that? Every time we tell someone what to do, we teach them that they don’t need to think for themselves. Every time we give someone an answer, we deprive them of the privilege of learning for themselves and teach them that they don’t need to learn for themselves. Every time we prevent someone from thinking things through for themselves we teach them that it isn’t necessary. Every time we make a decision for someone else we teach them that they don’t need to, or are unable to, make a decision for themselves.

You may have noticed how a teenager, who simply couldn’t keep their room tidy, changes as an adult and their own house is kept tidy. The chances are we had taught the teenager to be helpless. Despite the nagging, we teach the child that eventually Mum will come in and do the tidying. So we teach them that they needn’t bother. People are quick to learn. “If I don’t make a decision about this, the boss will, and if it goes wrong it will be his fault not mine”, are the sort of (unconscious) thought patterns that we actually encourage. “If I never learn how to do this, someone will always help me and then I won’t have to bear the responsibility on my own”.

There is a tendency for people to be lazy, or at least take the path of least resistance, and I am quite convinced that at some level people sense that “if I don’t take responsibility for this, the boss will have to, and all the time he is spending sorting this mess out is time that he can’t spend managing me, being on my case and forcing me to perform at a higher level.” Which is a win win for the subordinate and a lose lose for the boss.

So I wonder when we have team members that aren’t playing at their best, who aren’t stepping up, who aren’t bringing their brains to work, I wonder how much of that is because we have trained them to be helpless?