The Stupidity Paradox

“There's a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity—and we're all co-conspirators.” That's one of my key take-aways from about 40 years in the workforce. Whenever I say it, people tend to assume that it's based on my 30+ years in government, although actually this particular realization didn't strike me until post-retirement as I gained more experience with the private sector. (I came to realize that so many of the problems that I thought were unique to government were really symptoms of what I now call Large Organization Disease.)

But it wasn't until I read the new book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work that I came to understand how the conspiracy maintains itself, both in the private and public sectors. The authors, Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, are business professors based in Sweden and the UK respectively. They were inspired to collaborate on the book when they realized, as they write in their introduction, that “many of our most well-known chief organizations have become engines of stupidity.” As soon as I read those words I knew I was in for an honest discussion of why it was that “organizations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity.”

I expected to gain many valuable lessons and insights for you valiant Rebels at Work. And I was not disappointed.

The Stupidity Paradox carefully explains why “functional stupidity” is actually an important survival strategy for many organizations. “Functional stupidity is an organized attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work.” Why do companies do this, you may ask? Alvesson and Spicer offer this explanation:

By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. We often value convenience over confronting the inconvenient truth.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is an important consideration for Rebels at Work. We often despair when ideas we KNOW to be CORRECT are ignored by leadership. And so we accuse leaders of being stupid, cowards, or perhaps even evil. But what The Stupidity Paradox tells us is that many organizations value consistency over excellence and existing practices over innovation. As the authors write: “Most decisions made in organizations are about coming up with satisfactory outcomes, not optimal ones.”

stupidityOuch! The entire book is full of such blunt assertions. It was fun reading a no-holds barred critique of the cultures of large organizations. Lois and I are always counseling Rebels at Work to restrain themselves and employ Ninja moves, so it was refreshing to read someone say what so many of us actually think.

But don't imagine that the worker bees get off scot-free!!! I actually looked up the origins of that phrase to make sure it wasn't an inappropriate ethnic characterization. Indeed it is not—scot comes from an old Scandinavian and Middle English word for taxes.

But I digress! The authors of The Stupidity Paradox have plenty of blame to spread around. Strategic ignorance is a common condition among today's knowledge workers. “Knowing what to know—but also what not to know—is a crucial skill that people working in any organization pick up rather quickly.” And the authors observe, in one of my favorite lines, that “living a happy life in an organization often requires a capacity to avoid trying to learn too much.”

Sound familiar? Again I think it's important for Rebels at Work to realize that, for many of their colleagues, laying low is a survival strategy. Overcoming such inertia requires constant communication and careful consideration of what might motivate their colleagues on an emotional and/or personal level.

There's much more of interest for Rebels at Work in The Stupidity Paradox. It's a fast read that will help you understand better how organizational culture usually impedes efforts for improvement, whether they come from management or the grass roots. Alvesson and Spicer skewer just about every modern business strategy, from total quality management to branding. But they seem to take particular delight in puncturing the cult of leadership. As they note casually, “We have spoken with many individuals who have devoted their careers to delusional ideas about leadership.” They continue:

Leaders often encourage followers to avoid thinking too much. They ask them to buy into narrow assumptions, not ask too many questions and avoid reflecting on the broader meaning of their actions. By corralling followers' cognitive capacities, leaders try to limit how followers define, think and act.

And that's precisely why the world needs more Rebels at Work!