This was originally posted on April 30, 2013.
Stupidity in big organizations is not a bug. It’s a feature. So say two scholars, Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden and Andre Spicer of City University in England, in their recent paper, The Stupidity Factor in Organizations.
They say organizations need “functional stupidity,” which is a willful lack of recognition of the incompleteness of knowledge and a willful refusal to question the organization’s goals and policies. This builds confidence and loyalty which helps the organization to function smoothly.
Alvesson and Spicer discuss how managers use vision statements, motivational meetings and corporate culture as “stupidity management” to develop loyalty and suppress critical thinking. They discuss how employees use “stupidity self-management” to suppress doubt and get with the program.
In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, a recruit decides that the U.S. Navy is an organization designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots. When in doubt, he asks himself, “What would I do if I were a idiot?” That is a gross exaggeration, but an exaggeration of truth.
Managers want employees who are intelligent enough to carry out orders competently, but not so intelligent that they question the orders. Critical thinking creates friction that prevents the organization from running smoothly. Over time the organization’s tendency is eliminate that friction, and become more disconnected from reality.
You can see this in how Washington officials and journalists understand public policy. They treat the processes of government, such as the 60-vote rule in the Senate or the revolving door between corporate and government employment, as if they were objective and unchangeable facts, like the laws of thermodynamics. They treat actual problems, such as unemployment or global climate change, as if they were matters of personal preference.
The trouble with ignoring reality is that sooner or later it catches up with you. Then crisis generates what Alvesson and Spicer call the “How could I have been so stupid?” syndrome.
Click on A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations for a PDF of Alvesson’s and Spicer’s paper. If you read it with close attention, I think you will see the dry humor beneath their social science jargon.
Click on Understanding Organizational Stupidity for Dmitry Orlov’s summary of their paper and his comments.