In 1967, Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, began conducting Pavlovian experiments on dogs to understand learning behaviors.  Seligman and his research partner, psychologist Steven Maier, observed helpless behavior in dogs that were conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone.

In order to investigate the helpless behavior further, Seligman devised another experiment using three groups of dogs. In the first group, dogs were strapped into harnesses for a period of time and then released. Dogs in the second group were placed in the same harnesses but were subjected to electrical shocks that could be avoided by pressing a panel with their noses. A third group of dogs received the same shocks as those in group two, except that they were not able to control the duration of the shocks. Thus, the shocks seemed to be completely random and outside of their control.  Later, all of the dogs were placed in a shuttle box. Dogs from the first and second groups quickly learned that jumping the barrier eliminated the shocks. Dogs from the third group, however, made no attempts to get away from the shocks. They had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks.  (Seligman & Maier, 1967) The dogs’ response is referred to as learned helplessness.

Seligman and Maier learned that inescapable events produce capitulation. Dogs that learn that their actions are futile no longer initiate action. People are the same way.

I just reread, Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, How to Change your Mind and Your Life. I originally read it in the late 90s and it set my life’s course in a new direction (a very much needed one at that). As a result of reading the book, I am sensitive to the phenomenon of helplessness in people–and organizations.

I often talk to firm leaders who have ambitions to create “innovative” or “client-centric” cultures, but often have actions akin to the electric shocks on Seligman’s dogs.

I recall working with a firm that was going through a sea change: new management team, new go-to-market strategy, new product offering, new pricing structure—damn near new everything.  The firm had a smart, driven and dedicated staff that kept their heads up through all the tumult and worked hard to remain engaged. Yet, I noticed as I worked with the firm that deadlines were often missed, decisions were made and then unmade, all-day meetings were scheduled with 12-hours notice, roles and responsibilities shifted day-to-day and work was continually reworked.

The cause: a smart managing partner who micro-managed everything from business strategy to brochures.  The partner’s talented team produced great work and the partner reworked it over the weekend or impulsively redirected it.  The predictable result of her behavior was frustration, disengagement and—you guessed it—learned helplessness.  Her people shut down, thinking “Why try to produce great work when it’s just going to be reworked anyway?” Together, the leader and staff created a downward spiral. The team stopped producing great work and the partner micro-managed the group even more. Many of the good people left. Those that shared the vision stayed a little longer. What was left ultimately brought the organization down to sub-par performance.

Takeaway

Innovation and client-centricity are crucial attributes for driving growth, but innovation is about risk taking. Client-centricity requires timely discernment and action at critical one-on-one moments.  In an environment of micro-management or hyper-criticism, who is going to take risks and make decisions knowing that they will be overruled?  Leaders need to model optimism, empower people and build cultures that bring out the best in people.

Arthur Andersen told his partners, “If you are doing anything that someone under you could be doing, you are holding your team back, you are holding yourself back and you are holding my firm back.”  Learned helplessness is not a self-inflicted phenomenon on the part of your associates. It is the result of a leader (or leaders) whose pessimism, need for control, distrust of their teams and/or lack of management acumen needs to be addressed.

Don’t let innovation and client-centricity be buzzwords. And, don’t shock your team into capitulation. Empower them to deliver.

Be prudent.

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