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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 01-Jul-09


Wednesday 01-July-09

Us and them and learned helplessness in change

In working for many years in business change, I've found change 'agents' often indulge in grumbling about the targets of change. And indeed, they often have good reason to complain. Change is not easy and early success can soon slow as operational priorities become useful excuses to drag heels.

A problem with all this occurs where the people working on the change start to expect serious resistance. I have been in change meetings, for example, where much of the time is spent complaining about a lack of management understanding and support. Beyond the waste of time, this can have a serious effect on how the change agents think and behave.

A defeatist position known as 'learned helplessness' can become entrenched when people feel unable to make a difference. When working elephants in India are being trained, they are chained to a deep stake with a strong chain. Before long, they learn that pulling on the chain is painful and futile and so give up. After that, only a light chain or even a rope is needed. When faced with strong resistance, agents of change may start avoiding difficult tasks and excusing either themselves or their subjects with thoughts of 'It won't work' or 'They're busy at the moment'. And so the change agents become ineffectual and helpless.

The change thus fails, with the subjects happy to sustain the status quo and change agents pointing at organizational commitment whilst perhaps secretly happy that their tentative plans were never tested in the real world.

Your comments

Are they being tested now?? and where???

-- V.

Dave replies:
Learned helplessness was defined by Martin Seligman who, interestingly, is now a leading light of the positive psychology movement. The main note above is my observation, being involved in change for some time.

I agree with the statements in this entry. I have been fascinated with the change process and the historical slow way that humans engage in change or transformation individually and collectively. It seems as if we resist the complexity of being human thus we constantly look for simpler, easier, softer was of being. Humans by nature are not simple, easy or soft in being. It is important that teach to engage, work with, understand, plan and implement in complex ways comfortably. Naturally.

-- felicia


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