Is Your Organization Suffering from Learned Helplessness?

We see it every day. IT organizations tasked with having to deliver more with less. A person leaves, their position isn’t filled. The workload spreads, the pain increases and BANG! Systems go down, the shouting starts. But ask yourself something: does it have to be like this? Is the feeling of learned helplessness crushing your IT organization?

The term Learned Helplessness was coined by Martin Seligman in the mid-1960’s following work on animal behavior that went slightly wrong. It began with a routine conditioning experiment involving dogs and harmless –  though painful – electric shocks (please bear with me). The dogs were exposed in the first phase of the experiment to a pair of stimuli in quick succession – a tone followed by the aforementioned shock. The purpose was to condition the animals to associate the tone with the rather nasty experience of being shocked. To ensure the dogs remained in situ for the experiment, they were restrained so that when the tone sounded, there was nowhere to go – so much for the fluffy 1960’s you might say. 


 Once suitably conditioned, Seligman moved on to the test phase of his experiment and it was here that things went wrong. For this part of the experiment, the dogs were no longer restrained and instead an escape route was provided. Thinking the results were going to be straightforward, Seligman predicted that once the dogs heard the tone, they would bolt for the escape route and avoid getting shocked. Seligman was wrong. So wrong in fact that a new chapter of psychology had to be written. The dogs stayed put. They remained where they were despite having the option of avoiding the painful experience by using the escape route. Instead, they simply sat and accepted their fate. The feeling of helplessness had over-ridden their reasoning so that even when a solution was available to them, they sat still. And so the term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined.

 And here’s the rub: it’s not just for dogs. Humans are just as easily afflicted with learned helplessness as their best friends. Manipulate a person’s environment for long enough – swamp them with requests for assistance, push systems until the break, place them in situations where they feel they have no control  – and this feeling of learned helplessness starts to override the brains logic circuits. To the point that even when a way out is available, it’s rejected out of hand.

 But simple adjustments to how you do business can have a major impact on the feeling of learned helplessness. Getting technology to work for you, rather than the feeling of working against you, can go some way to reversing the feeling and handing control back to an organization, even with less resources. Smart performance monitoring tools such as System Centre Operations Manager can be optimized to let organizations know in advance that an issue exists in their environment. Short-circuiting the problem before it manifests itself in the user population can reduce the stress on limited resources and go a long way to reducing fire-fighting and that feeling of always being on the back foot.

 Basic process improvements in how front-line personnel troubleshoot issues (take our Vital Signs Performance and Monitoring Workshop available through Premier Support, for example) and leveraging the tools that already exist in their environment for analyzing problems (tools that are surprisingly overlooked by many IT organizations), can expedite resolution times and improve service to your customer base. It also hands control back to your team.

 But first, you as the customer have to realize there is a problem. Then you have to see the escape route. And finally you have to use it. Premier Support can provide myriad operational improvements and offers an escape route to the stress placed on your organization. We are your extra resource.  Many of our customers take advantage of our Operations Strategic Review and/or our Proactive Services Maturity Review programmes to get a comprehensive grasp of their overall environment.   Talk to your Technical Account Manager about what Premier Support can provide your organization through workshops, technology updates, optimization and tuning.


And by the way, no animals were hurt or injured in the development of our products. Which is always good to know.

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