The theory and practice of functional stupidity

You need to be remarkably intelligent to be functionally stupid.
==Mats Alvesson & André Spicer, The Stupidity Paradox

A higher percentage of Americans than ever before have advanced college degrees.  I.Q. test scores are higher in every generation, a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect.   Information technology is a major industry, and we talk about our “knowledge economy.”

So why do corporations and other big organizations do so many stupid things?

Two management experts, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, say that the explanation is what they call “functional stupidity”—which is “the inability and /or unwillingness to use cognitive and reflexive capability in anything other than narrow or circumspect ways.”

No big organization could function efficiently if everybody in it thought critically and independently about everything they did.    The whole point of hierarchy is to enable obedience to orders on a large scale..

In a hierarchy, employees have to teach themselves to focus on their own jobs and not worry about the big picture.   Otherwise the organization wouldn’t function smoothly.

Functional stupidity reduces conflict, soothes anxiety, improves morale and increases self-esteem.   The problem is when the organization is blind-sided by reality.

The philosopher John Dewey said that all human action is the result of impulse, habit or reasoning.   It is not humanly possible to reason out every single aspect of life, according to Dewey.   We turn to reason  when our habitual ways of acting or thinking fail us.   Why do people in big organizations so often fail to turn to reason before it is too late?

In their 2016 book, THE STUPIDITY PARADOX: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer identify five categories of functional stupidity.

Leadership-Induced Stupidity

 In contemporary organizations, it’s thought that the duty of an executive is not only to manage, but to inspire.   Leaders are supposed to be “change agents.”  But change can be either good or bad, depending on circumstances.  Adolf Hitler, after all, was a transformational leader.

Executives can waste their time engaging in what they think is inspirational leadership to the detriment of their tasks as managers— budgeting, assigning work, quality control, employee evaluation and so on.   Most employees, according to Alvesson and Spicer, don’t want leadership.  They just want to be left alone to do their jobs.

Structure-Induced Stupidity

Whenever a crisis arises in an organization, the typical response is to issue a directive to prevent the same thing from ever happening again.   Also typically, the directives are never repealed, even after the reasons for them are forgotten.  The result is a “society of superficial scrutiny,” in which managers spend a lot of time holding meetings and drawing up reports on policies that none of them really believe in.

The United Airlines official who ordered a doctor dragged off a plane in order to provide a seat for an airline employee was following company policy to the letter.  If he had acted on the basis of common sense, he might have gotten in trouble.

Imitation-Induced Stupidity

Management, like anything else, is subject to fashion.   Typically a corporation will adopt a policy—total quality management, diversity training, focus on core competency—that seems to work, and a few others will study and imitate their example.  Then it becomes a fashion, and everybody has to do it, whether or not they understand it or even agree with its purpose.

What constitutes “best practice” is highly dependent on the situation.   Imitating supposedly best practices without understanding their context will get you in trouble.

Branding-Induced Stupidity

“Branding” is a way to induce people to make decisions based on image and reputation rather than reality.   Buying a top brand is a way to play it safe; nobody, Alvesson and Spicer said, ever was criticized for hiring McKinsey and Co. as consultants.

Many companies spend more effort in promoting the brand  than improving the produce.  Alvesson and Spicer pointed out that toothpaste companies spend enormous amounts on their brand images, even though most people buy toothpaste based on (1) price, (2) discounts and (3) position on the shelf.

They wrote about a university in England which ran ads saying that “possibilities are infinite” for their students (which is impossible) and inducing its staff to talk in a distinctive tone of voice.

Branding is a form of propaganda.  The danger is in believing your own propaganda.   The other danger is in giving customers what polls and focus groups say they want rather than what will objectively serve their needs.

Culture-Induced Stupidity

All organizations and groups have unspoken rules.   Examples are (1) think positively, (2) don’t resist change, (3) don’t criticize others’ hard work, (4) look forward, not backward and (5) don’t point out problems, offer solutions.   Such rules create harmony and reduce conflict within the organization.   The problem is when reality breaks through.


In the final section of the book, Alvesson and Spicer propose some remedies, which are mostly a matter of being aware of the problem and being open to awareness of problems.   They said companies and other organizations should foster an “anti-stupidity culture” in which it is acceptable to think critically.

Outside consultants can be helpful if they talk to employees and learn the things that everybody knows, but nobody dares say on the record.   Of course, if this is done too often, Goodhart’s law goes into operation and managers learn to game the system.

Another useful exercise is what they call the “pre-mortem.”   It is to call a project team together, tell them to assume that in two years time the project was a total disaster and get their ideas on what would have caused the disaster.

My favorite is “bullshit bingo,” in which employees write down examples of meaningless buzz words, and should “Bullshit!” when they get 10 of them.  The prize could be a bottle of wine or something.

All to the good.   But the problem of functional stupidity goes deeper than simple failure to strike a proper balance between critical thinking and following orders, as I will argue in my next post.

The deeper problem is this:  Knowledge is power.  The way to accumulate power is to monopolize access to knowledge.


Why smart people buy into stupid ideas: The Stupidity Paradox by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer for Financial Review.   An edited excerpt from the book.

You don’t have to be stupid to work here, but it helps by Andre Spicer for Aeon.

Understanding Organizational Stupidity by Dmitry Orlov.


Afterthought: Beware of “anti-stupidity”-induced stupidity.   Managers can fall into the trap of eliminating entrenched practices that seem to serve no purpose, but in fact are work-arounds necessary to keep the organization functioning.

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