Coffee Conversations Ep. 7: Learned Helplessness

As leaders, we often want to be Superman. We want to be the person who swoops in and solves the problem or sets everything right with a team member.

But that tendency may be more about seeking glory for ourselves than it is about solving a problem. Maybe all that person needs is an available ear to figure out the solution on their own.

This week’s episode of Coffee Conversations explains:

Here’s more from David VanderMolen, one of our professors in Barry-Wehmiller University:

People don’t always need someone else to save the day.

In life and in leadership people have been trained to rescue the people who come to them with a problem. It’s for most folks in positions of power or in roles of authority “the” reflex response to the situation.

In fact, most have been led to believe solving problems is their job and helping others by solving their problems is a statement to people that says, “I care about you!”

However, this kind conditioning, typically seen as a caring response, can be problematic; as it tends to unintentionally nurture learned helpless in people and create illegitimate dependency between people with power or authority and the people who have learned to be powerless in those moments or conditioned to need others to solve their problems for them.

Not only is this kind of behavior problematic; it’s often not even a truly caring response, as its not so much a caring rescue of others (A people helping behavior) as much as it is about being a hero to others (A need to be needed behavior).

Most of the problems people bring to leaders don’t require a whistle-blowing rescue; they simply require a listening response from their leader. Empathy and listening so people can solve their problems on their own and be their own hero.

Just remember:

  • People learn helplessness when leaders needlessly jump in to save the day.
  • Great leaders never ignore cries for help, but always strive to empower people to solve problems on their own.
  • Great leaders listen, trust and guide people to be their own hero!

Here are some questions to consider as you think about this week’s episode:

Is my “reflex response” to people with problems to run to their rescue?

Do I perceive my job in those situations is to solve their problem?

If you answer “Yes!” to question one and two, conduct an internal inquiry to ask yourself: What’s that all about?

Who in your span of care would benefit the most if you were to replace your “rescue response” to them with reflective listening and empathy?


You can watch all past episodes of Coffee Conversations here.

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.

1 Comment

  • Cristina Helffrich says:

    I was very touched by the Learned Helpless reflection. It is so true. I used to ask my son to help me with my computer and he always replied that I can figure things out by myself. I just have to believe I can. At the beginning I was upset because I thought he did not care, but I now understand that it is the opposite.
    Thank you

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