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12 Dec 2016

Business Management Mistakes That Spawn Impotent Work Cultures

Advice on how to build a team and an organizational culture abounds. It focuses on what to do though. Little is said about what to stop doing. Yet, business management mistakes can undercut all that advice.

Many such mistakes spawn an impotent work culture. Such a culture resists change. Fails to adapt and grow. For instance, we don’t need to yell and scream at employees to berate them. Ignoring them is the same thing with a silencer.

Learned Helplessness

To see how this happens, I recommend this video on “learned helplessness.” It’s a condition that American psychologist, Martin Seligman, developed in 1967. He first came across it in shock experiments on dogs.


As the phrase says, people learn to be helpless. If they can learn it, people can teach it. Moreover, what’s eerie is that they can do so without realizing it.

Examples of the Business Management Mistakes that Teach Helplessness

The business management mistakes that teach helplessness usually come in two forms:

  1. Devaluing employees’ intrinsic talents and abilities
  2. Overvaluing firms’ organization and procedures

For instance, the first form shows up when managers don’t do things like:

  • Show they listen to employees especially when problems arise
  • Focus enough on employees’ strengths and too much on their weaknesses
  • Compliment or reward employees enough for their talents or when they do well

The second form shows up when managers do things like:

  • Justify not doing something rather than taking responsibility for the decision
  • Warn employees of “rocking the boat” when offering something new
  • Reprimand employees for not “going by the book” or “going through proper channels”
What common business management mistakes teach helplessness in employees?

What can grow in this type of culture? What business management mistakes creates learned helplessness in employees?

In the first form, managers teach employees that they don’t have what it takes to change things, to improve or to advance. The second form has managers teaching that the firm’s structure and culture are huge barriers to those things. In both forms, employees are helpless to change things.

Signs of Learned Helplessness Setting In

Granted, saying these just once or twice won’t teach helplessness. Over time though they will. The signs of it setting in will have employees saying things like:

  • Don’t waste your breath. Nothing changes around here until something blows up. Then, it’s all about trying pin the blame on someone.
  • They’re (management) not listening.
  • I would just advise you to keep your head down. It doesn’t pay to go out on a limb.

Impact on Change

Learned helplessness increases resistance to change in two ways. First, employees don’t have the confidence to handle change. Second, they don’t believe the firm can change. No matter what they do, no matter what the firm does, all will be the same.

Well, all will be the same except they will have more work, the same pay and many of their co-workers gone.

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