June 29, 2016
Reducing Continuous Delivery impedance–Part 5: Learned helplessness
By: Mark Rendell

In this post I’ll attempt to describe how to recognize and tackle Learned Helplessness.  Please share your comments at @markosrendell (especially if my Psychology-by-Wikipedia needs guidance).

Through various interactions with clients, at meetups, conferences and even with my own team, I’ve witnessed the following phenomena:

  • Something is done (or not done) on an engagement that makes Continuous Delivery difficult (for example the development team accepting SonarQube saying some seriously defamatory things about their unit test coverage but neglecting even to gradually address this).

  • When questioned:

    • Many people already appreciate that this is very wrong.

    • Hardly anyone can really explain or justify why this is happening.

    • Hardly anyone seems worked up about a solution.

It gave me an impression that people had experienced good practice in the past, but having joined this particular engagement had somehow lost the inclination to do it. It’s possible that for some people, in the past when things just worked, they didn’t question it, so never really appreciated the value of particular practices. But I think most people are more analytical than that. I started to realize that people probably had gone through an experience like this:

  • Joined the engagement, didn’t understand why certain things were or weren’t done, but opted to observe before speaking up.

  • Realized things actually weren’t magically working in some new logic- or experience- defying way. 

  • Spoke up but didn’t really get listened to.

  • Spoke up again several times, but didn’t really ever get listened to.

  • Gave up and accepted things for the sorry way that they are.

I figured there must be a name for this, started googling and realized it is called Learned Helplessness, something that was first experimented in the 1960s by some scientists we can probably assume weren’t dog lovers…

The experiments are best described here on Wikipedia but in extremely simplified form:

  1. Some dogs were given no random electric shocks.

  2. Some dogs were given shocks and also given a button to press to disable the shocks.

  3. Some dogs received shocks at the same time as group 2 dogs but had no button. Group 3 dogs were paired with Group 2 dogs and were shocked until their Group 2 pair happened to press the button (which was at a random time from the Group 3 dog’s perspective).

The learned helplessness of Group 3 was demonstrated in the second part of the experiments when dogs had the opportunity to cross over a small wall to avoid getting shocks. Whereas Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned how to avoid shocks, Group 3 all failed to learn and sat their accepting their fate in pain.



The similarity of the above diagram to diagrams about DevOps like this made me smile!

Subsequent experiments demonstrated the ineffectiveness of threats or even rewards on motivating Group 3 to change their location.  Only by physically teaching the Group 3 dogs to move more than twice did they learn to overcome the helplessness. Later experiments also proved the same phenomena in humans (without electricity).

So how do we overcome this?

Here are some things I’m experimenting with:

  • Ask yourself what you’ve learned to accept, really look around for things that are stopping your project going faster, no matter how obvious, and start to ask why, perhaps at least five times.

  • Ask others around you at all levels of experience what they think is preventing learning and improvement and consider asking “Five Whys” with them.

  • Pay close attention to new joiners on your team. They are the only ones not yet infected by Learned Helplessness.

  • Be sensitive with people. No one wants to be told they are “helpless” or hear your amateur psychobabble. Tread carefully.

  • If you are looking to impart a change, don’t overestimate the impact of threatening or incentivizing the people who need to change. They may already be too apathetic. Instead expect to need to show them multiple times:

    • That the proposed change is possible. You need to demonstrate it to them (for example if it relates to Continuous Delivery something like the DevOps Platform may help make things real).

    • That their opinions count and they have an important voice.

How is Learned Helplessness harming your organization and to what extent are you suffering? Let’s get the discussion going at @markosrendell.

Popular Tags

    More blogs on this topic



        COMMENTS (0)




        Your Data Privacy

        By providing your e-mail address, you agree to the terms
        outlined in our privacy statement associated with
        commenting on the site. Your e-mail address will not be
        used for promotional marketing purposes.

        Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
        Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code