Posts Tagged ‘The Stupidity Paradox’

Job security and speaking truth to power

July 13, 2017

During the 20 years I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, I was surprised at how many people were afraid to speak freely because of the consequences to their careers or chances of getting a job.

About the only people I ever met who were willing to speak as if they were free Americans were:

  • Self-employed professionals such as physicians and lawyers.
  • Self-employed craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians.
  • Owners of small businesses that served the public (not sub-contractors)
  • Tenured college professors.
  • Civil servants (provided they were speaking about their area of responsibility and not political issues).
  • Labor leaders and members of strong labor unions.

Many years ago I read David Kearns’ memoir of his years as CEO of Xerox Corp.  (I no longer have the book and don’t remember the title).  In one chapter, he described a meeting he held with workers at Xerox’s Webster, N.Y., plant about problems with a new model of copier.

He told how the president of the union local replied, “Why didn’t you ask us, Dave?  We could have told you it was no good.”

My impression is that Kearns thought he deserved credit for not getting angry at the union representative.   But, actually, what he should have done was to arrange to meet with him once every six or twelve months.

If you are in a position of authority, someone who will tell you the truth is invaluable.  But few in a position of authority want to hear inconvenient truths.  Hence functional stupidity.


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.