Hierarchical Helplessness: How to Lead From the Bottom Up

Note:  It is a new year.  In the blogs this year, I hope to focus on the theme of learning from social excellence.  Social excellence is a pattern of interpersonal behavior that deviates from the norm in an honorable and extreme way.  Learning from excellence means detecting and attending to extreme patterns of desirable behaviors.  If we detect and learn from excellence, we may evolve to the point that we can consciously bring about the emergence of social excellence.  I will try to attend to this issue by writing from this perspective.  Some blogs will have a light touch and some a heavy touch.  At the end of the year, I hope to examine the blogs and offer a more systematic statement of social excellence.


Today’s blog provides an answer to the question I am most frequently asked: “If I work in an organization that does not have a positive culture and the people at the top are not willing to listen, what hope is there for me or for my organization?”  The question is an inversion of another statement of helplessness: “My direct reports only work for a paycheck, they do not care about the organization.  There is no way for me to lead.”

These questions are a reflection of a more general phenomenon known as “learned helplessness.”  Learned helplessness is defined as follows on lexico.com: “A condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.  It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.”

The above questions reflect a very specific form of learned helplessness.  I call the phenomenon hierarchical helplessness.  Most people in organizations suffer a sense of powerlessness arising from many experiences that demonstrate they cannot exert effective influence, particularly upward influence.  Too many people spend their professional lives in hopelessness and depression.  They learn little about the creation of social excellence.

There is a remedy.  To access it, we have to learn from the small minority of people who effectively lead their leaders.  They are excellent in their influence.  By observing them, we can begin to construct a theory of action that most people are prevented from accessing.  Today’s case is such an account.  It is the story of a woman and her colleagues doing what most people need to believe is impossible:

“A few years ago, I worked for a traditional, risk-averse organization with a handful of diversity and inclusion pioneers.  This intrepid group of informal influencers invited me to join them in creating a business case for increasing the number of women in senior leadership roles.  Given more than 50% of this organization’s customers were female, and most of the senior leadership teams did not have a single woman among them, it was easy to convince the more progressive leaders that we needed to focus on recruiting and developing female leaders.  However, we quickly learned that many of the leaders had deeply ingrained mental models that made it difficult for them to behave in ways that made women want to be part of the senior leadership team.”

Please note the two levels of challenge.  At the first level, the senior people are convinced by rational arguments based on numbers and explanation.  I call this approach the theory of telling.  It is the approach that most humans take.  When we want people to change, we present the rational arguments about why they should change.

In this case it was easy to get the more progressive leaders to listen.  Yet there was a deeper challenge.  The leaders were wedded to mental models that prevented real change.  This is the problem of culture.  Most people attack it by applying the theory of telling and they almost always fail.  They become discouraged because they can conceive of no other theory of influence.

“The data showed us that women were leaving the organization in droves at the front-line leader level and that many of the women recruited for senior leadership roles declined their job offers.  I suggested we do interviews to better understand why women were leaving or choosing not to come.  Our research showed that women were not joining or progressing in the organization as easily as men due to a lack of development opportunities, discriminatory policies, and a feeling that they were not welcome at the leadership level.”

This is not an account of knowing and telling.  It is an account of listening and learning, and it is an illustration of an elusive truth: we cannot change others until we change ourselves.  It is only in becoming one with a system that we can change a system.  The aspiring change agents were willing to move from numbers to the basic human experiences that were producing the numbers.  By making it possible for people to tell their most privately held truths, the change agents were hearing what the leaders are unable to hear, the authentic voice of the organization.

“The authentic stories we heard were so compelling that we decided to share them with the senior leaders.  We included anonymized anecdotes in all our presentations.  When we presented to the executive team, we decided it would be much more compelling if some of the women told their stories in person.  The executives quickly saw the business case for having more female leaders and were largely supportive of our recommendations for policy, process, and behavior changes.  However, there were a few long-standing practices they were hesitant to abandon.  It was clear they were not consciously trying to hold women back; rather, they did not clearly see how these practices were negatively impacting women.  Sensing this bias, one of the female leaders courageously told her story and expressed how the practices in question kept her from doing her job as efficiently and effectively as she could if she were male.  Her authentic story was the turning point in our presentation.  It turned into a candid but kind dialogue in which we all shared our experiences and brainstormed ways to influence the changes that would lead to a more positive culture for both genders.

In the end, the executive team supported all of our recommendations and even offered to take them to the CEO for final approval.  We equipped them with the data and stories they needed, and the CEO ended up approving all of our recommendations as well.”

The change agents did what conventional theory says not to do: they integrated logic and emotion.  They shared stories that gave meaning to the data.  Yet even this was not enough.  They had to bring forward a woman who cared enough about the greater purpose to tell her personal story “courageously.”  In doing this, the storyteller exercised the courage to expose her authentic voice.

Her courageous action illustrates a principle form Peter Block, “All social change begins when one person makes the private public.”  It was only when she expressed her authentic voice that the conversation could open and deep learning could occur.

We commonly claim that in hierarchies “truth cannot speak to power.”  By this we mean the expression of our facts do not alter the confirmation bias of those above.

The problem is not in the power of those above, the problem is in the lack of power in those above and in the lack of power in those below.  People at the lower level, who operate only in the logical realm are mirror images of the people above them.  They live in fear of learning.

Change is a function of effective influence flowing up or down the system.  We become effective when we integrate left-brain logic with right-brain insight and tie them to the common good of the system.  It is then that mental models begin to melt.  Only then is it possible to “brainstorm ways to influence the changes that would lead to a more positive culture for both genders.”  Culture change is a function of authentic leadership.  By learning from excellence, we can step out of our self-interested logic and discover how to do what we know is impossible.


  • Do you believe that you can change the behavior of those above you?
  • What do you learn from the excellence in this case?
  • What will you do that you have not done before?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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