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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Taught Helplessness

Taught Helplessness post image

Roy Osherove in response to my last post on the art of saying no linked to his short (but very good) article on coaching, pointing it is better to use a chance to help people grow instead of simply turning their requests down.

Yes Roy, you’re right. To some point at least. I mean I love the “What are you going to do about that?” story. But I also know a different flavor of it. It goes like that.

– Pawel, I have a problem with my project here…
– Um, what are you going to do about that?
– I need more people so please assign them to the project.
– Well, that might be a bit difficult. Do we have other options?
– No, this is the only one.
– Are you sure? Can’t you juggle with tasks in the schedule, haggle with the client so we can do something later or something less, incur some technical debt or just be late with this task?
– No, we need more people. There’s no other choice. If you don’t give me them the world will burn in hell of flames and our poor souls will be lost.
– I have no free people, sorry. Now, deal with that.

I know – the last line should go like that:

– I have no free people. What are you going to do about that? Ha! Check, mate! I have just used magic Roy Osherove’s formula so you lose and I win, sucker!

The problem I see here is taught helplessness. People choose the only solution they believe would work, no matter how unlikely it is to happen, and don’t even try to look for any other idea. It’s my way or highway kind of situation. And well, it’s usually my way when we are at that.

Usually in such cases unless you start with the art of saying no you can’t move to what are you going to do about that. You can hardly turn active search for reasonable solution on unless you turn down the one which is imprinted deep in the mind of a person who ask the question.

Taught helplessness basically makes people immune for coaching. If you’re going to help them grow, you better have a good no at hand.

in: personal development

4 comments… add one

  • YvesHanoulle March 26, 2011, 2:15 am

    In the book TA today [1] the authors have examples like this and how to react to this.
    I’m doing a workshop on Soft skills with Pierluigi at Mini XPdays benelux. [2] TA is one of the things we talk about.
    I think it is a book every coach should read.

    [1] http://www.amazon.com/TA-Today-Introduction-Transactional-Analysis/dp/1870244001
    [2] http://www.xpdays.net/Xpday2011/Mini%20XPDay/Soft%20Skills%20Essentials.html

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 26, 2011, 2:44 am

    Thanks for the reference Yves.

  • Zsolt April 5, 2011, 2:35 pm

    Hi Pawel,

    I agree with you, because I also believe that “saying no” helps.

    For some unknown reasons, I’ve started to “help out” people instead of saying “no” as I had done before, but after reading your post, I said “no” for the first time in months, and the difference was remarkable.

    The “test subject” knew a topic much better after getting a “no” response. He had to dig deeper, do some research so that he was able to connect the new knowledge to himself, because he did the work. When I helped him out before, the only thing, he was able to use as a connection, was me.

    I started to think that the term “growing a team” recently became the right thing to say, but does not give too much. For me it is not “saying no” or “growing”, but “saying no” is part of “growing”.


  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2011, 3:31 am

    I think it has much to do with the attitude. If one has positive, look-for-solution kind of attitude it’s easier to skip “saying no” part and go directly to coaching/growing the person.

    However it the attitude is negative and look-for-problem or alike first you need to change beaten paths so you can move to coaching. And then, saying no works as one of tools you can use. A pretty good one.

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