Don't Let 'Learned Helplessness' Destroy Your Company

Don't Let 'Learned Helplessness' Destroy Your Company

08.08.13Ron Ashkenas

“Learned helplessness” has the power to permeate the culture of an organization

Here’s a cautionary tale of cultural disempowerment: A number of years ago, one of my colleagues was asked to help reduce bureaucracy and speed up decision-making in GE’s former nuclear business – but was told that nothing could be done because every procedure was based on government regulations. “We’re talking about nuclear reactors here,” the managers said, “If we change the way we do things, something could blow up!”

Undaunted by their response, my colleague asked the managers to simply list all of their reports, approval procedures, reviews, audits, metrics, decision forums, standing meetings, and other management processes. He then had them identify which ones the government required, and which had been created internally. Much to the managers’ amazement, the vast majority of these management processes were self-generated – which meant that they could streamline much more than they had thought.

I’ve heard variations on this same theme across completely different industries: Pharmaceutical and financial services managers say that their hands are tied because of regulations or new legislation. Managers in a defense-related firm are constrained because of cuts to the Federal budget. Leaders in a professional services firm can’t take actions because of long-standing partner agreements. And the list goes on. Everyone can blame some kind of external circumstance for his or her inability to act.

Of course all of these explanations are at least partially true. However, around these kernels of truth, managers build concentric circles of excuses that absolve them of accountability for change or improvement. So instead of finding creative ways to deal with regulations or budget cuts, they accept the status quo and blame external conditions for the problems that exist.

This phenomenon – which psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” – has the power to permeate the culture of an organization. Like a spreading infection, managers pass on learned helplessness from group to group and level to level. Eventually the standard response to any initiative is some variation of, “We’d love to do that, but we really can’t.”

From the outside, this kind of culture doesn’t make any sense. As my colleague pointed out to GE’s nuclear managers, many of the constraints are self-generated. But you’ll find most managers are unwilling to courageously challenge their beliefs about taking risks. To fight this resistance and start down this path, here are two steps that you can take:

First, shine a spotlight on the pattern. The first lever for changing a recurring cultural behavior is to make people aware of it. To do this, make an inventory of initiatives that people say they want, but haven’t carried out. Ask why these kinds of initiatives die on the vine. Put together a list of the ten most common excuses for not taking action. The more dialogue you can create around these issues, the more your colleagues will become aware of their largely unconscious behaviors.

Second, prove your organizational power to act. Find one initiative that can demonstrate, even on a small scale, that taking action will not result in catastrophic failure. In one company for example, managers in the field were asked to identify requests from the head office that they thought were silly or redundant. Field managers had always complained about these requests, but never pushed back. Once they were given permission to challenge these “requests” and actually won a few victories, they began to develop the confidence to tackle more ambitious changes.

All managers face real constraints. Effective managers differentiate between those that must be accepted and those that can be challenged.

How can your organization overcome learned helplessness?

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.

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