Learned Helplessness in Organizations

A workplace crisis lead me to reflect on this HBR article on Learned Helplessness:

[Managers] build concentric circles of excuses that absolve them of accountability for change or improvement. So instead of finding creative ways to deal with regulations or budget cuts, they accept the status quo and blame external conditions for the problems that exist.

This phenomenon — which one of my clients has dubbed “learned helplessness” — has the power to permeate the culture of an organization. Like a spreading infection, managers pass on learned helplessness from group to group and level to level. Eventually the standard response to any initiative is some variation of, “We’d love to do that, but we really can’t.”