Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Learned Helplessness

I was watching my beloved football team (Richmond in the Australian Football League if you haven't seen an earlier blog on "Leaderful" Teams) last Friday night.

Well ... they remain beloved, but they are less than successful just at the moment ... but that's not so relevant.

While I was having my football supporter's heart broken again, I was really struck by the reactions of some of the opposition team (Collingwood) supporters sitting around me.

Remarkably enough, up to half time Richmond were leading comfortably. The reaction from the other team's supporters I found fascinating. Why? Largely because so many of them were young children or teenagers.

As their team slipped further behind in the game, their support turned rapidly into condemnation for ... yes, you might have guessed - the umpires.

Most sports fans hate getting beaten, but there can be a number of reasons why your team does get defeated. Here's just some:

* Your team's simply not good enough.
* The opposition are playing better than your team.
* The playing conditions (heat, rain, snow or whatever) don't suit your team.

Of course bad umpiring and refereeing do impact game day results. But, and it's a huge BUT ... it's pretty unlikely bad umpiring is the sole reason a team is being outplayed. Particularly in AFL where there are three field umpires, two goal umpires, two boundary umpires and a match referee. You'd have to be a real conspiracy theorist to believe in collusion to that extent!

So what?

What does yelling frustrations at the umpires at a sporting contest have to do with your business or organisation?

It seems to me that blaming the umpire has become far too convenient an excuse to avoid looking at the real reasons for underperformance. And this is a real danger for any organisation. If we can't honestly appraise our own performance and that of our business team, then we have a real problem.

And unfortunately, it seems that this is far more common than it ought to be.

Let's put it into the context of "learned helplessness". Wikipedia provides a useful definition of learned helplessness being:

... a psychological condition in which a human or animal has learned to believe that it is helpless. It thinks that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result it will stay passive when the situation is unpleasant or harmful and damaging.


Some of those Collingwood fans were seemingly approaching their team's (sadly for me - temporary) poor on-field performance from the perspective that they, and by inference, their team, were helpless to the fate of the umpires. There was no point doing anything.

Learned helplessness in organisations and businesses is even more dangerous. if this type of behaviour continues to be reinforced and is not actively addressed, it can become a dangerous part of the organisational culture.

Here's some common ways that learned helplessness can manifest itself in an organisation:

* Teams sit back and wait for the leaders or the executives to take action.
* Businesses blame regulators, governments, business cycles (or whatever) . They ignore the causes without taking action, instead whining about the symptoms.
* You hear workers saying things like "it's always been like this ... it's impossible to change ... our company is hopeless ... it will never change."

So what can we do about learned helplessness in organisations?

It's as simple and as challenging as having to unlearn that helplessness and relearn the ability to ask the tough questions and be optimistic.

Perhaps most importantly, it's getting the key leaders at all levels in an organisation to realise and communicate the truth of "We are the They". When some form of responsibility and accountability is reinstated, then the helplessness can be banished by focused action.

Luckily for the Collingwood supporters last Friday night, this is what their team and the coaching staff did. The players didn't blame the umpires. They worked out what needed to be done, took action, and unfortunately for the Richmond supporters, they succeeded!

No comments: