ISSUE 150 : Sep/Oct - 2001 - Australian Defence Force Journal

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ISSUE 150 : Sep/Oct - 2001 - Australian Defence Force Journal

Overcoming Learned Helplessness 157By James WarnThe Four Questions Asked by Effective Executives in Making People Decisions: 2• What has he or she done well?• What therefore, is he or she likely to be able to do well?• What does he or she have to learn or acquire to be able to get full benefitsfrom his or her strength?• If I had a son or daughter, would I be willing to have him or her work under this person?Dr Alan Hawke diagnosed a severe case oflearned helplessness in the Department ofDefence:There are certainly elements of whatI would call a culture of learnedhelplessness among some Defencesenior managers - both military andcivilian. Their perspective is one ofdisempowerment. 3The pattern of attributing failure to lack ofability, task difficulty, or bad luck, andbelieving that successes do not reflect effort orability has been called learned helplessness.Seligman and Associates first defined theconcept in a series of laboratory experimentswith dogs in the mid 1960s. They placed dogsin a restraining harness and then exposed themto a series of painful though not physicallyharmful electric shocks. No matter what thedogs did, the shocks would occur. Next, thedogs were put in a shuttle box, a chamberdesigned so that a dog can jump over a barrierand escape the shock. Dogs that had not beenpreviously exposed to the inescapable shockwould run frantically around the box untilthey accidentally scrambled over the barrierand escaped the shock. The dogs quicklybecame very adept at recognising the signalwarning of the shock and jumping the barrierbefore they were shocked. In contrast, thegroup of dogs, which had been subjected to theinescapable shocks, would at first run aroundfrantically for about 30 seconds. But they thenstopped moving, and lay down inside the boxand quietly whined.Since these early experiments, which inhindsight seem very cruel, learned helplessnesshas crossed the species barrier. Learnedhelplessness has been detected in human workgroups. Work groups afflicted with learnedhelplessness are unlikely to increase theirefforts and apply new strategies in the face ofdifficult problems because they believe that thecauses for their failure (and success) arebeyond their control.Learned helplessness is an outcome of aseries of disabling and unpleasant experiences.The causal factor is easily identified in anexperimental setting. However, thecontributing factors are less apparent inorganisation settings. The manager may nothave experienced a single traumatic shock.Instead, the manager’s behaviour is likely to bethe result of an incremental series ofexperiences that degrade one’s sense of beingin control of events. The manager may noteven have directly experienced some of theseevents. Managers observe the behaviour ofothers and evaluate the consequences of thisbehaviour. In general, people learn to adapttheir behaviour based on vicarious experience,that is, what they see happening to othersaround them.Underlying learned helplessness is a set ofbehaviours in the organisation that ChrisArgyris has called organisational defensiveroutines. 4 Argyris identified amongst a group

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