A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations

I kid you not. That’s the actual title of research reported in the Journal of Management Studies. One of the authors, Mats Alvesson, has a long history of ground-breaking research. And this is another feather in his cap. Not quirky, it’s really, really smart and very useful research.

This is one of those studies which tell you more than you want to know about how organizations actually work. The researchers don’t screw around. They nail organizational BS to the wall. What’s unique about the research are the insights around stupidity and the use of power to achieve strategic imperatives.  In many cases stupidity is supported by organizational norms and used to facilitate smooth interactions. Used this way, it can be helpful in producing results and creating a sense of certainty.  But this is a big issue that also creates significant risks for both individuals and the organization. The fact is, however, that organizational and personal success is not inevitably built on smooth interactions: success often means disrupting people and processes.

But in this blog, I intend to merely allude to the organizational uses of stupidity and emphasize the losses it leaves behind. First, there’s one very interesting question about the stupidity theory: why?

Why this study?
–It challenges the idea that organizations operate through their intellectual capital. Indeed, it shows how the denial of intellectual capital can facilitate the organization’s work. Aaargh!

–It reveals that the power and dominance of managers are to blame for organizational stupidity, not lack of time, available resources or “smarts.”

–It also reveals how stupidity works in those key experiences of leadership, identity, culture, learning, core competence, innovation and even in networks. 

So what is “functional stupidity?”
A nice turn of phrase, it refers to the inability and/or unwillingness to use critical thinking skills in any way except for the most obvious, narrow and simple minded reasons. The research questions the oft-stated notion that today’s organizations rely on the smarts of their people. It reveals that these human capacities are often (usually?) limited by what the authors call “functional stupidity.” The research emphasizes throughout that stupid behavior is a general characteristic of the way organizations work as well as an issue of individual thinking and behavior. Furthermore, we conclude from much experience that stupidity is a serious lack of ability, far more than unwillingness.

The research focuses on three issues: reflexivity, justification of decisions and avoidance of substantive reasoning.

Reflexivity is about the absence of questions regarding the organization’s dominant beliefs, rules and expectations encountered in organizational life. These routines are thought to be a given, natural and a good. Indeed, employees may not question organizational routines because “what is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you.” Lack of reflection applies to most all givens, including leadership, development and uses of funding. Reflecting on our diverse experiences we believe, significantly, that employees are not merely unwilling to question, but that they’ve never developed higher order questioning competencies.

In one of a number of his HBR blogs, Umair Haque calls reflection an imperative about which most execs are clueless. His comment is apropos: Most companies don’t know how to reflect. They’ve been finely engineered to do. Haque suggests that the beginning place for reflection is with the issues of why, what, which, primarify and qualify around a decision process. That reads like a case of the simples. But that’s because most folk never dig into those questions with much depth. So his Harvard blog is one place to start building the competency.

Justification entails the failure of employees and managers demanding or providing in depth reasons and explanations in depth for decisions. Instead, sincerity, legitimacy and truthfulness are brought forward as the validity for decisions. We believe failing to ask for justification is often about the “feedback syndrome:” employees don’t want to challenge others, might be fearful or defensive or don’t know how to justify an argument in depth. Not knowing seems to entail vulnerability in most organizations.

Substantive reasoning implies that employees and managers fail to use critical thinking skills. That includes reasoning, analyzing arguments, testing hypotheses, estimating likelihoods and making decisions. Business folk are especially weak at making behavioral inferences and drawing useful conclusions to enhance engagement and work. Instead, reasoning is typically centered round a small set of concerns. It’s critical myopia.

Functional stupidity typically is at play when decisions are made around what will make a person or the organization “look good,” tradition, or even fashion (“everyone else is doing it).

Admittedly, resolving these stupidity issues and performing superbly is not going to ensure success in a typical hierarchical organization. Individual success very often requires that those in power notice your performance and think well of you—because you make them feel good about themselves. Contrary to conventional wisdom, performance by itself seldom guarantees personal success. Instead, it is top drawer, decision making performance, built on reflexivity, justification and substantive reasoning—coupled with political skill—that will help you rise through the ranks. But that’s another blog.


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