Learning to be Stupid

March 11, 2013

I was recently requested to comment on an article about “Functional Stupidity“. This paper presents the concept of stupidity as being something that has positive and negative outcomes within an organization, and gives rise to “stupidity management” seeking to repress doubt and challenging questions within an organization.

This is not a new concept. It has been promoted for centuries by organizations such as the Roman Catholic church. I do not want to alienate the Catholics who may be reading this, but concepts such as papal infallibility are promotions of blind obedience, what the authors here call stupidity management. Challenging the authority of the Holy See gave raise to all kinds of “interventions” (from excommunication to the inquisition); it took centuries for Rome to finally accept that Galileo was right… A few years ago, a company with which I was working hired an enthusiastic young man for their change management team. I told his manager to make the best of him before he gets morally killed off by the corporate powers. One year later, he was doing his nine-to-five like everyone else.

The authors of the article tend to confuse the matter first by defining “leaders” in terms of their “followers”. Apparently, followers are people who trust their “leader” to have all the answers, to be trusted implicitly and to be obeyed in all times. This is the definition of leader which is used in North Korea and, in previous times was used by people such as Mao Zedong and Stalin. If that is what is understood by leader, God preserve me of followers. For me a leader is someone who inspires you to think and to challenge the status-quo. The leader should inspire trust, but not faith.

Three key aspects define what the authors call functional stupidity:

  1. Lack of reflexivity, or the unwillingness to question claims and norms. This characteristic is the foundation stone of all bureaucracy.
  2. Lack of justification, or the absence of reasons or explanations behind decisions. This is akin to the mother telling the 4 year-old “because I say so”. In an era when most organizations advertise the intelligence of their staffing, and happily use terms like knowledge management and business intelligence, the lack of willingness to provide reasoning to the staff is a unacceptable.
  3. Lack of substantive reasoning, or the focus on the task at hand without clear understanding of the context or purpose. In the UK, the term “jobsworth” defines this attitude of “doing what I am told, leaving at 5:30”.

Functional stupidity is encouraged by management by repeatedly “shooting the messenger”. This includes refusing to respond to a question, blaming people for daring to question a management decision or identifying risks which management had not noticed previously. The benefits of functional stupidity include “certainty”, “organization focus” and even “team spirit” – in fact the benefits the authors present are basically the same as those you would get from any other religion. They even allow for the negative aspect of “dissonance” in which team members are expected to hold contradictory ideas as true without questioning: what management says and what management does. George Orwell in his novel 1984 called this “doublethink“. There is no contradiction, because there is faith.

Unfortunately any organization considering this approach seriously is doomed to failure in the twenty-first century. We are living in a world in which everything is changing at an increasing rate and it is required for all participants that they are willing to continuously challenge the way things are done in order to fit into a given direction.  Serious leaders need to learn to encourage bad news and risks. However, in order to do so, the leadership needs to have a clear objective and purpose, they need to explain and motivate people into understanding and accepting their vision through education and listening.

I hope that the ambition of the authors of this article was to warn organization against this approach, but frequently that does not come through, it appears at times that they believe this is a valid management technique. The organization in the 21st century needs to be customer focused, place service delivery first and trust the staff to know how to perform this efficiently. If (as I have seen many times), management does not trust their staff with the data regarding success and failures, if management does not trust their staff to do the right thing with the right information, it is because that management team has hired the wrong people and they know it. Many managers have tried to hire people who were less capable then themselves in order to strengthen their own authority – this does not work.

The future lies in educating people and encouraging them to think for themselves.

More of my thoughts on this topic can be found in my “Prezi” presentation FP2.


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