I’ve just been reading a great book by Alvesson and Spicer called The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work.
The authors argue that even though we have a focus on knowledge organisations, and there is a lot of talk about the knowledge economy, the reality is that most organisations, even those who classify themselves as knowledge intensive, have very few people who act with intelligence.
For example, even in organisations such as universities, the majority of staff spend most of their time following rules, doing what they are told and what is popular at the time; work that focuses on “discipline, order, mindless enthusiasm, conformity and a willingness to be seduced by the most ludicrous ideas” (Dillon, 2016).
Staff who ask questions, or critique what goes on are often pulled into line by their colleagues and managers.
In reality, staff who ask questions are seen as troublemakers and it does not take an intelligent person long to realise that asking questions is going to limit promotion opportunities and may lead (certainly for contract or casual staff) to limiting their future employment chances.
In reality, what puts people on the promotion path is a portrayal of certainty and confidence in fulfilling the expected role: the unquestioning neoliberal citizen in action.
The authors give the example of Nokia, once one of the leading mobile phone companies in the world.
Management of Nokia recognised the threat inherent in the release of the first iphone and devoted a year to developing a mobile platform senior management believed would compete. Nearly all of middle management identified very early that the platform was flawed, but were seduced into not questioning this investment.
As we all know, the consequences for Nokia were extremely severe and the company was ultimately taken over by Microsoft.
Leaders themselves are influenced by this culture of stupidity. In universities, for example, the majority of leaders are actually managers, tasked with implementing and monitoring policy to ensure compliance.
So how do we discourage stupidity and conformity at work?
The authors suggest for every discussion someone is appointed to take on the role of devil’s advocate: questioning assumptions and making sure that decisions are justified.
They suggest before implementing a project, staff reflect on all that could possibly go wrong and work on prevention.
Finally, they suggest the need to identify and eliminate meaningless and empty ideas: ideas that are corporate-speak but do not actually achieve anything.
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