Here’s how it works: intelligent people join organisations and end up turning off their ability to question, doubt and challenge things around them in the organisation. Why: because the organisation has employed stupidity management to elicit simple, clear direction that stifles the use of creativity, knowledge and intellect.
In 2012 Mats Alvesson and André Spicer wrote a journal article titled A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations[i]. We have known for some time that organisations are prone to making stupid decisions and have focused on things like group think, bias and decision-making processes. Alvesson and Spicer brought something new.
In their article they coin the phrase functional stupidity. Functional because it works and achieves outcomes. Stupidity part because it intentionally avoids using intellect. We are conditioned to think of stupidity as the lack of intellect or knowledge, whereas here they introduce the notion of stupidity as the presence of intellect that is deliberately not used.
Stupidity management thrives under the following dynamics:
Leaderism: This represents a reliance on leadership that produces an outcome where the decision making is entrusted to leaders, who then produce guiding brands, slogans, and direction statements that are intended to harness forward movement and the achievement of goals. They tend to build strong cultures, charismatic leaders and often have cultish features.
The assumption is that the strong leader sets the path, creates enthusiasm, builds a feeling of belonging to a team, provides employees with the right ideas, and orchestrates personal growth. A true follower relies heavily on the leader to do the thinking and decision making about key issues, such as visions, strategies, values, and identities. (p.1206)
Positivism: This is an approach which looks to maximise the positive future that decisions and strategies evoke with a dose of denial attached to any negative thoughts or even questions. Typically, this sort of leader or boss will have the mantra of ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’. Negative thoughts, questions, comments or doubts will be dealt with directly (through demotion, confrontation, redirection, or lack of future opportunities) or indirectly (others in the organisation pleading for the ‘negative’ person not to rock the boat).
Power that blocks communication: The organisation’s leadership encourages adherence to a set of beliefs and practices which discourage critical thinking and doubt. Efficiency is often lauded; an example is meetings that are measured as successful if they are brief rather than containing meaningful discussion or dialogue. Outcomes, especially within a time frame, tend to be lauded above inclusion, creativity or breadth of inquiry. In the church and not-for-profit arenas, this is often built around certain beliefs or narrow purpose. Individuals who have a dissenting view are marginalised.
At this point, you may be feeling affronted that your leadership style and skill have been have ascribed a negative perspective here. But it is not all bad news. Under certain circumstances stupidity management has some significant upsides.
Firstly, in circumstances that are dealing with simple, non-complex issues, stupidity management tends to create efficient, harmonious and productive environments. For many workers and group adherents the thought of simply following a strong leader is appealing and preferable especially when there is not much at stake or the leader is echoing the follower’s beliefs.
Secondly this approach works in the short term. It is especially effective for an organisation that has experienced deep turmoil or growing stagnation. The desire to see movement and growth quickly catalyse around simple answers and clear direction. In both cases, many employees and adherents are going to applaud the stream-lined efficiency of meetings, the lack of complex thinking required on their behalf and the sense of harmony and movement that functional stupidity fosters.
The downsides of building your organisational around functional stupidity are multiple. In broad strokes there are three major backlashes to stupidity management.
Firstly, the lack of critical review and feedback. Ironically stupidity management tends to survey, formally and informally, for morale and group thinking on a regular basis. The problem is that they only get the feedback they have created through their own management style (this is of course compounded when management is conducting their own survey rather than using an outside person). Organisations with deeply entrenched functional stupidity will always struggle with complex, multi-dimension decisions. Spicer[ii], one of the authors of the article, gave the example of Nokia in an interviewed with ABC radio. He notes Nokia were the first company to develop the smart phone and held significant market share. To stay ahead of their competitors around 2007 they developed a new operating system called ‘Symbian’. Technical staff and lower management knew almost immediately that it wasn’t up to scratch, but it took 12 months for the company to realise. Why? – no room for dissent, critical feedback or negativity. Nokia lost market share and was eventually sold to Microsoft cheaply.
The second broad backlash to stupidity management is the lack of creativity. Although creativity is called for by management it tends to dissipate in amongst the company mantras, strong strategic statements and vision rhetoric. One organisation I worked alongside for a season had almost zero creativity, even though there were extremely intelligent people working in the environment. Each year they would have a strategic ‘dreaming’ day and come up with the same answers as the last year. Why? – there was no room for individual thinking, critical analysis or dissenting ideas.
The third, and most devastating backlash, is that of disenfranchisement. This is inevitably created when the positivism and organisational push is contrasted with the negative reality that an individual is living. In amongst the positive evocations from the stupidity management, an individual will start to catalogue the gap between these organisational directives and their own personal negative experiences.
This can lead to a range of resistant responses including alienation, cynicism, activism or exiting from the organization. (p.1209)
The reason this can be classed as the most devastating response is the simple reality that new generations are leaving all kinds of organisations, not-for-profits and churches at high rates, often with the claim that the organisation’s rhetoric lacks substance or does not live up to its own hype[iii]. Talent is not retained.
So how do intelligent managers make sure that their organisation is not dependant on functional stupidly?
1. Use functional stupidity intentionally. There are numerous good outcomes associated with functional stupidity which an intelligent manager could leverage for organisation health and harmony. To emphasise the fact that there are positives not just negatives in stupidity management, Alvesson and Spicer named their follow-up book The Stupidity Paradox[iv]. However, remember that it would be unwise to employ stupidity management long term or to have it as your only mode of operation. You certainly would not apply it for complex situations.
2. Create room for discussion and dissent. To formalise a time for communication that allows open discussion, questioning and negative feedback. One organisation that I have worked with several times aims for this type of outcome but does not recognise that the ‘messaging’ of vision and positivity is so strong that participants still don’t enter the discussion with a sense of freedom. To make this work organisations may need to set up a ‘think tank’ environment which is quarantined from the rest of the ‘normal’ operation. Outside facilitation is inevitably essential so participants do not feel they will be penalised
3. Create proper feedback loops. This will probably involve anonymity to begin with to allow for safety. A suggestion box (which is treated with dignity), anonymous surveys, and externally led reviews are some suggestions. The story is told of a church pastor who received an anonymous letter that he then burnt/binned on the stage the following Sunday with the comment, ‘this is what I do with unsigned letters’. Although I understand the sentiment and the frustration of uniformed or underserved criticism I go with the adage ‘all feedback tells you something’. The more interesting question might be why the author felt they needed to remain anonymous.
4. Improve your decision making. Make a point of having a devil’s advocate in decision making processes. Encourage the decision-making group to talk about possible negative outcomes. Employ the concept of a pre-mortem – work out why the idea or decision died before, not after, it’s death. Engage outside opinions on major decisions. Find new ways to allow for difference of opinion when making decisions[v].
Steve facilitates team discussions that explores the five underlying causes of
Functional Stupidity and how to improve your team’s current practise.
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[i] Alvesson, M., and Spicer, A. (2012), A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations, Journal of Management Studies, 49:7, 1194-1220.
[ii] Spicer, A. (2016, July 30). Functional Stupidity. (R. Aedy, Interviewer) ABC National. Retrieved November 18, 2017, from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bestpractice/stupid/7659452
[iii] See White, J.E. (2014), Rise of the Nones, Baker Publishing, Grand Rapids: Michigan
[iv] Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. (2016). The Stupity Paradox. London: Profile Books
[v] Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013), Decisive. NY: Crown Business