Last summer Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer published a book called The Stupidity Paradox.
At a time when, let’s face it, many of us thought that we were having a summer of stupidity.
However Spicer and Alvesson’s book is not about politics, elections or Brexit. It is instead about organisational stupidity at work.
They argue that many organisations build in deliberate and functional stupidity into their ways of working in order to control the people that work for them. Consciously or not, by limiting the decisions that their often very bright executives can make, senior managers keep control of what’s going on, even if that means limiting innovation and ideas for growth.
They mandate targets for executives to reach without considering the consequences that those targets might have on the overall organisation and don’t allow them to be questioned.
For example, if a business sets a team a task of reducing the cost per site visit to the lowest possible level, it will undoubtedly have a consequence in terms of longer-term outcomes such as conversion to buy or delivering more people who are warm to the brand.
Delivering against the first metric is easier to measure, and easier also to achieve. It is also sometimes stupid as a single focus.
If it is your kpi however, then you are unlikely to be rewarded for arguing against it. The authors say that, "functional stupidity is an organised attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work".
It doesn’t exist at my place of work. I’m sure it doesn’t exist at yours. But I bet you know some places where it is all too evident.
One of the characteristics of those places is poor leadership. Poor leaders surround themselves with likeminded people, people who reassure them and do as they are told. However impossible the deadline or the demand, they leap into the fray and wear themselves out in the process. However stupid the request, they will respond positively and not dream of saying to their boss "no, you’re wrong". They will be highly rewarded for doing this, and in its way, it is quite nice work, just doing as you are told.
Alvesson and Spice write that where functional stupidity reigns, "the thing to do is to create the right impression… someone in the thrall of functional stupidity is great at doing things that look good."
As Suzy Bashford wrote for Campaign, good leadership is crucial to retain talent. So the consequences of this kind of stupid leadership are in the end inevitable. The business will suffer from a lack of fresh ideas, and everyone’s energy will be spent on creating the illusion of invulnerability around the leader. If a leader comes across as a sole hero there’s a danger that there is not enough of a great team around them. Our jobs these days are too complex for even the smartest solo performer. And the need to have an ear to the ground and to embrace the shop floor as well as to pick up intelligence from the real world is a job for more than any one man alone.
Really smart leaders build a smart team. A team that will challenge them and the status quo, and will break things and reinvent before an outside challenger does it anyway. A team that trusts each other and can be both brave and humble in trying the new and acknowledging that no-one has all the answers.