Learned Helplessness

I’ve recently discovered that there is another term for what I refer to as the ‘Metro Attitude’ — “Learned Helplessness” (LH). Who knew?

There has been scientific research done on LH. In a nutshell it shows that most peoples’ spirit can be crushed and their motivation destroyed by (among other things) a dysfunctional bureaucracy that only knows how to punish, not how to reward.  A lot of the Wiki entry about LH applies directly to Metro.

At Metro, those who speak up/ask questions/make suggestions are often punished or shot down. I refer to the phenomenon as “Wack-a-Mole”, after the arcade game. At a place like Metro, employees quickly learn that the less they do, the more they ‘hide in the corner’, the better off they are. There are rarely any positive consequences for working hard, being conscientious, and doing the best you can under the circumstances (which are often horrible). The best that can happen to you at Metro is nothing. On the other hand, a lot can go wrong. If there is a problem or failure anywhere near the employee’s location they will often be blamed for it. Same with any delays — whether it was the employee’s fault or not. Maybe a train operator will report them for not signaling properly, or an operator will be blamed for an equipment malfunction, or someone will get hurt and everyone will have to submit to drug & alcohol testing, as well as fill out incident reports.

In other words, at Metro, it’s almost all ‘stick’ and very little ‘carrot’. All risk and no possibility of any reward.

Over the 27 years I was there, I watched as countless people were converted from positive and proactive to cynical and apathetic. It was sad to see. New employees would try to be helpful and make suggestions to improve efficiency only to be shot down in flames over and over again. They would go ‘above & beyond’ only to be disciplined if anything went wrong. After a while, even the most determined person will get discouraged.

One example that comes to mind is a meeting we had with a new mid-level manager who was in charge of both ATC (Automatic Train Control) and COMM (Communications).  He came to Shady Grove Yard (A99) to speak with us one afternoon — sort of a ‘getting to know you’ informal meeting.  At one point he asked, “What can I do for you?”  In other words, what are some problems you’re having that are affecting your ability to do your job?  Any issues or concerns about safety or efficiency?  One of my coworkers, Jeff Garrard (who was later killed on the job along with one of the guys on my crew, Sung Oh) spoke up and mentioned that we had an on-going problem with “C-bonds” breaking and causing track circuits to become intermittent or fail (show false occupancy).  A C-bond is a short braided copper cable that’s about 1/2 inch thick.  They are used at rail joints to ensure electrical continuity from one section of rail to the next.

[This photo was taken to show the damage done to the rail during one of the Shady Grove derailments, but does show a portion of the two C-bonds around this rail joint.]

Broken C-bonds are a very common problem and are often the cause of delays.  ATC techs are required to inspect them and report any that are broken but they are the responsibility of the Track Dept.  ATC does not have the equipment required to weld the C-bonds to the rail.  Track Dept. is often busy and often does not (or did not) treat C-bonds as a high priority.  Jeff was asking what could be done to solve this problem that is affecting the efficient movement of trains — perhaps another type of cable (which Metro already uses in some areas!).  The manager, instead of thanking Jeff for his input and concern, said, “How’d YOU like to go out there and fix them?!!”  I was amazed at his reaction.  Even for Metro it was over-the-top.  Needless to say, very few technicians had any suggestions after that.

There are a rare few, a handful of which I had the pleasure to work with, who seemed to have such good character and such a remarkable work ethic that they were able to rise above all of the bs and continue to do exceptional work. For the most part however, employees quickly learned to keep their mouths shut, keep any ideas to themselves, and do the minimum possible to reduce their exposure to negativity. They would stop thinking for themselves and instead cover their ass by continuously asking management, “What do you want me to do now?”, and logging their supervisor’s response in the TCR log book. Of course, management — especially lower and mid-level supervisors — were in a similar position, and they didn’t have the union to protect them. So many of them would be paralyzed with fear over losing their jobs if something went wrong. They would often be reluctant to come out and say, “I want you to do A, B, and then C.” Often, when pressed for instructions, they would pass the buck — pass the job on to another shift or delay it to ask their superior. Their boss in turn would be reluctant to stick his neck out and so on, so that the job was significantly delayed or was never completed.

The same was true of rules, policies, and procedures.  As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a very good chance that the June 2009 wreck would never have happened had the draft of the ‘High Frequency Track Circuit PMI” (preventive maintenance inspection) been approved in a reasonable amount of time.  Instead, it bounced around for years — probably because there was no perceived urgency and because several people have to sign off on all PMIs, and many of them are reluctant to.  No good can come from it.  If the PMI is well written and (in this case) prevents a horrible train wreck chances are no one will know.  Even if it does come to light that the new track circuit verification procedure caught a potentially deadly problem, there will likely be no recognition, no awards, no raise, no promotion.  This cannot help but make people reluctant to sign off on anything.

That’s why 9 people were killed and 70 or 80 injured — because of Metro’s culture.

I still don’t have a solution. I really wish I did. I don’t enjoy just pointing out the problems without being able to help, but I suppose it’s a start.

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6 Responses to Learned Helplessness

  1. Dan says:

    Wow. Thank you for your candor. I long suspected that this is how it worked inside Metro, but to hear it from someone with so much first hand knowledge is truly saddening.

  2. Pingback: How Metro’s ‘learned helplessness’ manifests | HuntersMedia.com

  3. I know you’re probably not my biggest fan (this is me), but thank you for this – hopefully you’ll keep posting things like it. RIP Jeff Garrard.

  4. wfc mike says:

    Amazing!!! How true this is. I thought after 27 years in rail car maintenance we had a monopoly on the exact syndrome you describe. I often wondered how it must feel to work along side the ones who died in service as a result of the inept and complacent behavior of Metro management. Top down, just as you have described. Thanks, I could have not found the words. It is so good to be out! I am so sorry for the loss of our co-workers who have died as a result of METRO’S mistakes.

    • Congratulations on making it out in one piece Mike!

      If you have any rail car maintenance (CMNT) stories you’d like to share, feel free — or email me directly (see the “contact” tab on the home page).

  5. Pingback: Who Are You?!! | Washington D.C. Metro From the Inside Out

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