When an elephant is a baby, the trainer will put a shackle around it’s leg and drive a stake in the ground so the little elephant can’t walk away. Tug as they might, they are stuck.
When the elephant is huge and could easily pull up the stake, they don’t try.
This is known as learned helplessness and it is an epidemic that prevents people from fulfilling their career potential because the rules that got you where you are will not get you to where you want to be.
Here is a real life example:
I had just started a turnaround project, it is the middle of summer, I am at the office and my phone rings. It is Hubert (fake name) from the Texas office.
“Hi Matt, it is Hubert. It is 112 degrees here in Texas today and I was wondering if it was okay if I go get some ice cream bars for the team, I think it will be about $35”
Click – I hang up.
My phone rings again.
“Hi Matt, it is Hubert, we must have gotten disconnected I was calling about…”
“Hubert, we did not get disconnected. I hung up on you to make a point. You are the manager of a team of over 30 people, you have budget responsibility, and a signing authority limit. You never again have to call to get permission for an ice cream social.”
Hubert was choked up.
A grown man, over 40 years old was choked up because somewhere in his career he had been trained to “not pull on his chain too hard”, and finally someone believed in him and trusted him enough to point out that he was strong enough to break his shackles.
Here is the challenge – empower your team and trust them, they will usually get it right, and when they don’t get it right…congratulate them for trying and learning from it.
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