What is learned helplessness and why it impacts your team?

On Friday we had a presentation with our new VP of Product. He presented his Vision and Mission for the upcoming months and one of the questions that were raised was

What about work that falls outside of that? We have to do it because someone told us to…

a team somewhere

I had this conversation before with one of my teams, but at the time I didn’t know that there was a clinical term for this. We see this behavior very often in teams that are starting their journey into agility. Teams that don’t yet own their process and don’t yet know how to say NO or push back.

I was searching online to try and get a better understanding of what this really is. This is the must-have Wikipedia article.

I am not a neuro-scientist, and far from it, but I have seen this in person. Not at a personal level, but at a team level.

A team has a history of being pushed to do whatever (insert management, product or business) wants them to do. There is no leadership structure to support the team and push back on what is being pushed in. There is a chance the team will push back at some beginning stage, but without proper support, there will be a time when the team will just give up.

Because they gave up, does this mean it is their fault? Of course not.

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders

Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

And the problem doesn’t stop there. The moment a team is in this learned helplessness mode, any new member that will join the team will get sucked into this vortex of eternal helplessness. And even if all the old members that experienced this go out of the team, the culture is already set, everyone will believe nothing can be done without even knowing why. It is like the five monkey experiments that I will explain more about tomorrow.

Until the next post.



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