The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work
Authors: Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer
This critical review of how big organisations really run overturns all previous assumptions about leadership and management. The book’s main argument is that many institutions are not maximising their full intellectual potentials (page 7). The authors, experts in business administration and organisational behaviour, support this with their observation that ‘organisations which employ so many smart people…foster so much stupidity‘ (page xi). The authors call this mix of intellect and ineptitude ‘functional stupidity‘, something they define as ‘the inclination to reduce one’s scope of thinking and focus only on the narrow, technical aspects of the job’. They uncover a sinister underpinning of functional stupidity, the ‘organised attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work’.
The book explores the reasons why functional stupidity thrives. At its simplest, the driver appears to be the desire for most people to ‘fit in and get along’, to ‘simply get on with their job’ (page 48). They therefore stop asking questions, restrain themselves from thinking about outcomes, and just obey commands (pages 8-9). The authors assert that many jobs are deliberately dumbed down and have mindless, script-led, stupidity built into them so that workers may ignore ‘the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work’ (pages 11 and 55-61). They however point out that this strategy creates the ‘ideal conditions for big mistakes‘ because it builds a conformist workplace, impairs vigilance, instills mindlessness, desensitises people to problems, and obstructs clever decision-making (pages 61 and 213).
The book detailed the many ways functional stupidity manifests in organisations. These include the ‘skilled incompetence’ of managers whose ‘defensive routines’ enable them to avoid making decisions (page 63). The organisation rewards their efforts with a ‘proliferation of sophisticated titles’ which imparts on them ‘the glow of being smart’ (page 45). Because they are only evaluated on their short-term results, an ‘endemic lack of responsibility‘ becomes the rule (pages 199-200). The workers on the other hand develop an ‘abhorrence of independent thinking’ and the absence of substantive reasoning (pages 7 and 78-80). They also learn the ‘subtle procedures of ignorance’ which hinder them from informing their seniors of problems (page 66).
The authors argue that functional stupidity is also rife at the societal level. They illustrate this, for example, with what they call the society of superficial scrutiny, the constant oversight of organisations to ensure their compliance with arbitrary standards (page 129,140-146). The authors made particular reference to the ‘ever-expanding range of legislation, regulations and protocols‘ which doctors in the UK increasingly face (page 145). They also discussed the functional stupidity that pervades educational and academic institutions, saying their research output adds little insight or advancement, noting that most of the papers they publish are neither read nor cited (page 27-28). The book was particularly critical of the proliferation of experts who pursue ‘ever-narrower sub-specialisms’, and are ‘marooned in a very narrow universe’. These experts demonstrate close-minded and dogmatic thinking, and ‘struggle to think outside the well-defined perimeters of their own hard-won knowledge’ (pages 132-133).
A key insight from the book is its unique concept of leadership and expertise. The authors were scathing of the exaggerated importance placed on leaders who are perceived as people with ‘extraordinary significance‘ and ‘moral superiority‘ (pages 118-119). They argue that the mindless adoption of this idea of leadership is to blame for organisations over-committing to practices that do not work, and for followers ignoring ‘other forms of coordination that can take the place of leadership’ (pages 124-125). They chastise leaders for asking their followers ‘to buy into narrow assumptions‘ and avoid reflecting on the broader meaning of their actions’ (page 109). The book however warns, slightly contradictorily, that ‘stupidity should not always be challenged’ because this may ‘undermine authority and leadership‘ (pages 235 and 12).
The book discusses many interesting concepts related to functional stupidity such as shared thinking (page 156), corporate window dressing (page 163), commodity fetishism (page 172), gold-plating (page 175), organisational culture (pages 191-207), the repetitive change syndrome (page 198), negative capabilities (page 223-228), and the economy of persuasion (pages 85, 184-187). The authors cite the examples of Pepsi, Amazon, Nokia, and CCC to illustrate the five types of functional stupidity the book lists. They make many recommendations to counter functional stupidity, saying ‘the only way out of doing stupid things is critical thinking and reflection‘ (page 51). They elaborate on nine processes for dispelling stupidity which is essential reading (pages 229-234).
This book reveals how most large organisations really get by, and the picture is as unsettling as it is accurate. They show that faulty reasoning and short sighted attitudes serve important roles in keeping organisations running. They also highlight the serious consequences that result when these are not questioned. The authors addressed many concepts related to the subject, and they did this in clear writing style. Their suggestions are insightful, although how these actually work in practice was not clear as some recommendations were slightly conflicting.
This book offers an invaluable insight into the real working of most organisations. Understanding the motivations and limitations of the people that function in any institution explains the often illogical mindset that pervades the system. The authors present a balanced view, pointing out the hazards, but acknowledging the benefits, of functional stupidity. It is relevant to healthcare organisations and I recommend it to all doctors.
- Publisher, Place, Year: Profile Books, London, 2016
- Number of chapters: 9
- Number of pages: 276
- ISBN: 978-1781255414
- Star rating: 5
- Price: £9.98