“In a nutshell, the experiment involved exposing dogs to controlled electric shocks in a confined space.”
One of the most common and destructive phenomena in bureaucratic organizations is the concept of learned helplessness. This term was first coined by Martin Seligman and his colleagues in their research on classical conditioning in the 1960s. In a nutshell, the experiment involved exposing dogs to controlled electric shocks in a confined space. The negative conditioning of the shocks eventually led the dogs to avoid seeking potential escape, even when the chamber was altered and an obvious exit was presented. This phenomenon is known as learned helplessness, and it can have devastating effects on individuals and organizations.
In many corporate environments, the negative effects of learned helplessness can be seen all too clearly. There are often too many people working in heavily regulated industries, using outdated and ineffective methods, and organized into hierarchical teams that stifle creativity and innovation. In such environments, even small attempts to deviate from the norm can be met with resistance and obstacles from self-proclaimed guardians of the status quo. The go-to argument in these cases is often governance and regulation, which are used as excuses for inaction and a lack of accountability for real change.
This self-imposed learned helplessness is often passed on from one team to another, and from one culture to another, until the majority of the organization becomes trapped in a cycle of feeling powerless and unable to break free from the safety of their constant suffering. It is no wonder that many individuals in these environments lose hope and become despondent.
One of the biggest dangers of learned helplessness is the way it can be exploited by those who seek to gain political advantage. These individuals often exaggerate the implications of self-imposed governance policies, creating artificial urgency and forcing people to work beyond their limits for the benefit of a few. In the process, employee well-being is frequently sacrificed, and any hope of creating a psychologically safe and caring environment is destroyed.
In conclusion, all leaders face constraints, and it is not always possible to challenge them. However, true leaders are able to differentiate between the constraints that must be accepted and those that can be challenged. They also show their employees that it is okay to go against the grain and that they will be supported in doing so. By encouraging creativity and innovation, and by fostering a culture of accountability and empowerment, leaders can help their employees break free from the cycle of learned helplessness and create a more positive and productive environment.