Learned Helplessness and Managerial Uncertainty


Photo by Abulic Monkey

This post is the fifth (and last) post in a series of posts I am writing on lessons about managing people from the book Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (for more post in the series, see 1, 2, 3, 4).

In the additions to the 2nd edition Ariely added a chapter called Thoughts about the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Its Consequences. In it he writes this:

All creatures (including humans) respond negatively in situations where things don’t seem to make sense. When the world gives us unpredictable punishments without rhyme or reason, and when we don’t have any explanation for what is happening, we become prone to something psychologists call “learned helplessness.”

Let’s think about a business environment. In your office or in your team, how much uncertainty is present? And no, I am not talking about general uncertainty which is a part of every business. I am talking about managerial uncertainty. It is a kind of uncertainty that revolves around what behaviors are expected and what will be the rewards or punishments to them. It is uncertainty about how decisions that affect people are being made.

Just think about all the times that your manager waited until the last moment to give his team the news. The last time there were rumors in the office about what is going to happen. The last time you knew something is going on, but did not understand what is going on. The last time you got a decision dictated to you without understanding why.

I wrote here a number of times that I think a leader’s job is to take care of the future. To try and dissipate the natural fear that is part of the uncertainty the future holds. But managers have to deal with uncertainty as well.

In investment theory there is a term called systematic risk. This term defines the risks of the entire market. This is differentiated from the unsystematic risk which is specific for a company or industry. What is the difference between them? You can take care of the unsystematic risk with diversification, while you cannot take care of the systematic risk.

A manager cannot take care of the systematic risk. The future. It is a leader’s job. It is the leadership uncertainty. A manager is in charge with the present. And he needs to take care of the risks associated with it. Take care of managerial uncertainty.

So, how do you take care of managerial uncertainty of the present? One word. Transparency.

As managers we need to make sure that our employees do not get to a state of learned helplessness. That they understand the connection between cause and effect in the workplace. That they understand how decisions are being made. That they understand the process of management. In the legal field there is term called Procedural Justice:

The notion that fair procedures are the best guarantee for fair outcomes is a popular one. Procedural justice is concerned with making and implementing decisions according to fair processes. People feel affirmed if the procedures that are adopted treat them with respect and dignity, making it easier to accept even outcomes they do not like.

When people understand the system and the system works “the way it is supposed to”, they don’t have to live in a state of uncertainty, even if the result itself is uncertain. They don’t have negative reactions and they don’t go into a state of learned helplessness. It is time we put some transparency to work in order to deal with the managerial uncertainty.


One Response to “Learned Helplessness and Managerial Uncertainty”

  1. Shorts: Peter Bergman on Vision of the Future and Vision of the Present « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] am trying to say when I talk about the difference between managers and leaders. Or put differently, the difference between leadership uncertainty and managerial uncertainty: A manager cannot take care of the systematic risk. The future. It is a leader’s job. It is the […]

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