When experience with uncontrollable events leads to the expectation that future events will elude control, disruptions in motivation, emotion, and learning may occur…

Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control.  Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, Martin E. P. Seligman

This post is about the phenomenon of learned helplessness.

We learn to be helpless?  Preposterous!

Not really.

This is not some esoteric psychobabble.

Yes, it does attempt to explain the curious behavior of otherwise normal and intelligent human beings by extrapolating from Pavlovian dogs in the laboratory …

Yet, I can assure you, it is very real.  I’ve seen it in my work.  Past and present.

Here’s the scenario, in three strikes.


When experience with uncontrollable events…

Let’s start with imagining that we begin to experience events beyond our control.  The nature of these events could be almost anything.  The key point here is that they really are out of our control.

For example, let’s say that, in your organization, a reorganization produces a series of promotions that all go to people from a particular division of the company.  Unfortunately, not your division; soon the decisions coming out of the newly promoted leaders seem to give more weight and importance to their former people and projects, and not to you and your associates.


…leads to the expectation that future events will elude control…

You and your associates feel left out, ignored, disregarded. You feel marginalized.   You no longer see opportunity for growth, for influence, for making a difference.  You don’t see a way that this situation will change.


…disruptions in motivation, emotion, and learning may occur…

You believe there’s nothing to be done.  About anything.  You “learn” that you can no longer control any action, any decision, any direction.  Your perception has shrunk your circle of influence, to nothing.

While you were once active and engaged; you are now passive and disaffected.  There is no light; there is only shadow.  This is not true, of course; but you can’t see that, the shadow is all encompassing.  There is nothing you can do.  About anything.

Strike three, you’re out.

Learned helplessness.

You’re stricken.

*     *     *     *     *

Oh come on John; really?

Really.  I wish it were not so.

But management team subcultures of learned helplessness very much exist.  Maybe right now, in your organization.

Let’s be clear though.  They don’t shout it from the rooftops that they’re helpless, much less that they’ve learned to be helpless.  They put up a good front; they carry on.

But you can hear it in their language.

Doesn’t matter … can’t do anything about that … it is what it is … what are we going to do? … If that’s what they want us to do, so be it; we’ll do it …

You can see it in their dispositions.  There is no drive.  No incentive.  No response.  What’s the point?

Is this depressing?  I certainly think it is.

But there is a way out.

We can unlearn.

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