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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

May 2020

Learned helplessness

This post is about how clever leaders inadvertently create poor followers. 

Many leaders rise to the top of their organisations by being clever, pacey, problem-solvers. Some of these clever leaders, once at the top, can get frustrated that more junior leaders aren’t taking enough initiative. Sometimes bemoaning a lack of talent in layers below.

In this state of frustration, these clever leaders can become more controlling, often diving into the detail of others’ work and taking over. This controlling behaviour creates a vicious cycle, encouraging less and less initiative on the part of direct reports. So, how to help these clever, pacey leaders break the cycle and get more initiative further down the hierarchy?

When I talk about ‘these clever leaders’ I am, of course, talking about wonderful people. These are my clients, my friends and sometimes myself. Good people trying to do good things but who have found themselves inadvertently creating ‘Learned Helplessness’ in those around them.

Learned Helplessness is a term coined in 1965 by Martin Seligman, a psychologist researching behaviour. In experiments with dogs and electric shocks which seem incredibly cruel by today’s standards, Dr Seligman showed how animals, when they learn they are not in control of their fate, lay down and give up. Even when giving up causes them pain. 

Learned Helplessness is a useful idea in organisations too. It can explain why talented people give up trying to take initiative. Learned Helplessness is what you get when you accidently condition people not to think and lead for themselves. Leaders create Learned Helplessness inadvertently by being good at things! It’s caused by the shadow side of great strengths. 

When leaders do the following things, with good intentions, they create Learned Helplessness:

  • Solve a problem quickly before someone else has a chance to try
  • Take over while someone is in the middle of something and do it for them
  • Think or speak too fast for others to follow 
  • Interrupt people before they’ve finished speaking 
  • Point out the flaws in someone’s thinking when they are still working it through 
  • Punish mistakes rather than see them as learning opportunities
  • Talk about talent as if it is innate rather than the result of learning and practice.

Instead of Learned Helplessness, leaders need to create Learned Resourcefulness.  The good news is, leaders don’t have to stop being clever, problem-solvers. They simply need to add in some additional tools. For example:

  1. As well as a being a good problem solver, coach someone else to solve a problem.
  2. As well as being incredibly bright, help someone else to learn.
  3. As well as being pacey, learn to take a moment today to create headspace tomorrow.

This isn’t easy. It requires clever leaders to go against some of their instincts. It means leaders keeping one eye on the business problem to be solved whilst giving their full attention to coaching the person in front of them. It takes self-awareness and self-management. But the reward is resourceful people who take on greater and greater ownership, leaving senior leaders more time to lead.

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