Personality Matters: Ops and Learned Helplessness


Personality Matters: Ops and Learned Helplessness
By Leslie Sachs

The recent series of high-profile system glitches have increased focus on the role of IT operations and other key personnel in maintaining a stable and reliable system environment. The technologies involved are obviously complex with many moving parts, any of which could be responsible for a system crash, potentially impacting thousands of users and ultimately the company itself. Some organizations foster a highly effective environment where employees feel empowered to always do the right thing. Unfortunately, some organizations have a very dysfunctional culture that results in employees who do not believe that they can be effective and, worse, are not motivated to take appropriate action when serious incidents do occur. Instead, they focus on protecting themselves and ensuring plausible deniability. Dysfunctional operations teams are often a consequence of a dysfunctional organizational culture that breeds distrust and results in employees who just sit back and allow disasters to occur. What kind of organization do you want to work in and, if you are in a leadership position, what kind of organization do you want to help shape?

The majority of high-profile systems incidents – from the reliability-challenged Obamacare website,, to outages impacting numerous trading firms and trading exchanges – have almost all had one thing in common: published reports indicating that technology professionals warned of issues and problems that resulted in risks and potential systems outages. These warnings were largely ignored, or even overruled, by senior officials who had the positional power to make decisions that ultimately led to disasters. No doubt many of the technology professionals who spoke and tried to warn of impending danger were frustrated and discouraged seeing that their alarm went unheeded as they watched helplessly while serious incidents threatened their jobs and the very existence of the company that they worked for. It is certainly difficult to be optimistic in these circumstances.

Martin Seligman is credited with developing a new branch of psychology that focuses on promoting the type of positive behavior that helps to create effective teams and leads to successful results. We will be writing much more about Positive Psychology [1] in future articles, with a view towards helping you lead your organization, including the technology professionals who are on call all hours of the day and night running your systems operations, towards success and productivity . Dr. Seligman was born in 1942 in Albany, New York and received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Even before his work on Positive Psychology, Seligman was quite well-known for his work on Learned Helplessness [2]. In order to really appreciate the importance of Positive Psychology, we need to first understand learned helplessness.

In early studies on Learned Helplessness, dogs, who were used in the study, reacted to events that were beyond their control by apparently accepting the inevitability of their fate and actually stopped trying to prevent bad things (such as an electronic shock) from happening. Similar studies involving other animals, as well as some including college student volunteers, yielded similar results, thus providing more support for the assertion that some people (and animals) just stop trying to overcome problems when they learn that there is no point in attempting to prevent such incidents from occurring. Related dysfunctional behavior included cognitive learning deficits and depression. In other words, the results suggest that subjects who have learned to be helpless essentially give up trying, have difficulty learning and are depressed about their situation. So how did IT get to this unacceptable situation and how can we help our teams overcome learned helplessness?

Operations teams may find that they do not have the required training, procedures, and knowledge available to be effective at identifying and addressing issues when they occur. Development teams may themselves find that they have to write complex software without well-defined requirements and testers may feel that they just don’t get enough time in order to really ensure that the software is free from defects. Published reports indicate that all of these issues occurred with regards to the much-publicized release of the website. Technology professionals involved with this effort have indicated that requirements shifted late in the process, warnings about system reliability went unheeded and essential security testing was not completed due to a lack of sufficient time. When warnings such as these are ignored, it is no wonder that some professionals become discouraged and resigned to the fact that the system just won’t work as required.

A related problem is management’s often dysfunctional reaction to honest mistakes. Many organizations punish employees severely for serious mistakes, creating a culture where employees are afraid to step forward and admit when an error that could potentially impact the systems and the organization has occurred . Successful organizations understand that mistakes can be acceptable (and even good) if people learn from them. Quality guru Joseph Juran referred to mistakes as “gold in the mine” [3] a reference to the value that comes from a lesson learned. You want your employees to be willing to step forward and admit when they have made a mistake and then you want the entire team to refrain from finger-pointing and help address the problem.

Successful organizations ensure that their employees believe that they can be successful and feel empowered to identify and report risks. Senior management values their input and responds to the advice of the technology professionals who are most knowledgeable and capable of assessing potential issues. If you want your organization to be successful, you need to ensure that you drive out any aspect of learned helplessness and embrace a positive culture that enjoys a can-do attitude!
[1] Seligman, Martin, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Free Press, New York 2002
[2] Abramson, L. Y.; Seligman, M. E. P.; Teasdale, J. D. (1978). “Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87
[3] Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, Why Teams Don’t Work – What Went Wrong and How to Make it Right, Peterson’s Pacesetter Books, 1995, p. 87
[4] Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2010. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley Professional.