the blog of dan pontefract | Flat Army Book Excerpt: Organizational Learned Helplessness
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Flat Army Book Excerpt: Organizational Learned Helplessness

Did you know that in 1886, the U.S. court system recognized the corporation as a “natural person”? The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property.” Perhaps it was used at the time to defend corporations and block any attempt at depriving them of outside or worker interference.

To further the argument, President Rutherford B. Hayes said in 1876, “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.” I wonder if President Hayes was actually against hierarchy and greed, or perhaps he knew something we didn’t?

seligmanPerhaps the way in which our organizations operate today is a result of something known as “learned helplessness.” In 1967, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania began experimenting on dogs to disprove B.F. Skinner’s theory of behaviorism—experiments which were coupled with his interest in depression. So Seligman would experiment by testing the resiliency of a dog. After repeated attempts of administering inescapable pain and suffering—to see whether the dog would succumb to the pain—if given the chance to flee the dog would stay put. The poor dog, even if given the opportunity to leave the situation, would remain in the environment fully expecting that no matter what, the pain would continue at some point.

This condition would later be termed “learned helplessness.” It is the act of being unable to remove yourself from a situation that is clearly unpleasant even though there are ample opportunities in which to do so. It’s as though you’re in the Millennium Falcon and being sucked in by the Death Star’s tractor beam—there’s nothing you can do about it.

Further evidence for learned helplessness suggests depression may actually set in as well. Not surprising, if you’re in a situation that seems inescapable and even if you could leave, you feel too paralyzed to do so, I’m pretty sure some form of depression might set in as well.

Which brings me to my point: maybe the concept of learned helplessness has enveloped our organizations. We’ve learned to become helpless. We’ve become numb to the bosses who don’t care. We’re ambivalent to leadership that is hierarchical and close-minded. We’ve become blind to exclusivity and too paralyzed to suggest being included. We won’t flee the current situation because we don’t believe things will be any better anywhere else.

trappedWe are a version of organizational learned helplessness.

Maybe organizations simply are tools. Maybe they’re simply about making money or providing service or making products in the most efficient manner without regard for its people. Maybe there is no chance for humanity in the organization. Maybe the structure has been there for years because it is the most effective way in which to achieve the goal of dominance. Or perhaps it’s the action of getting the most out of the tool that drives today’s management practices. Perhaps some form of cognitive inertia or confirmation bias has set in on leaders and managers across many organizations, preventing them from thinking outside the proverbial hierarchical leadership box.

2Comments

  • Tim / 28 September 2013 4:38

    Interesting post. Curious to hear your thoughts about how Marty Seligman went on to become one of the leading voices in Positive Psychology.

  • Dan Pontefract / 30 September 2013 1:01

    Good question @Tim. I’m a fan of his work on the whole, but I take exception to his methods with Learned Helplessness. I once said to an adult learner in the middle of a class, “talk to the hand” thinking it was funny while in the middle of a point I was trying to make. I humiliated him and made a fool of myself. So, we all make mistakes and to err is human.

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