Agile Thinking

How to Unlearn Your Learned Helplessness at Work

Not every office is incompetent like the one from the show The Office—but on that same note, some offices really are that incompetent. It reaches a point where people stop being able to identify or reverse what is not working. In a post at her blog, Natalie Warnert addresses the problem of “learned helplessness” in business and what you can do about it.

Chained Competence

Warnert says you and others may be subscribing to learned helplessness when you start saying things like, “That idea won’t work for us. Our business is too different.” When you inherently reject the possibility of trying things in a new, potentially better way, you have become helpless. However, if you can at least acknowledge that you are thinking and acting in such ways, then you have taken your first step toward recovery.

The next step is to figure out why you have developed this learned helplessness. Dig deep down with myriad why questions, and physically write out the chain of catalysts as you go. If you do this with other problems of helplessness you identify, you will probably start to find root causes embedded in the company culture.

And once you are armed with that information, Warnert says to do this:

Let’s agile this. Look at the root causes, look at the chain leading to them, and look at the problems they cause. Prioritize that backlog based on an economic framework. What is the smallest change you can make that will have the largest impact? OR what is the smallest change you can make to get started? In other words, what can you change tomorrow, by the end of the week, or by the end of the month? What is just one thing to start with? It looks less daunting now, right? Get your team involved, do this at a retrospective, and get folks behind the change. Be relentless about it. You’ve just taken a step toward empowerment and away from helplessness.

She then acknowledges that causing widespread cultural change could be beyond the power of one lonesome employee—to which she responds it is then time to start finding allies. Campaign for change by showing people more powerful than you the economic costs of continuing down the current stale path. This will be a long fight, but the alternative is to remain helpless—not an attractive proposition.

For further thoughts, you can view the original post here:

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