Posts Tagged ‘Mats Alvesson’

The theory and practice of functional stupidity

July 12, 2017

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.


The stupidity theory of organizations

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 politics.   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.