Functional Stupidity, And How To Deal With It

Tuesday 11 February 2020
Many organisations and teams unwittingly suffer from “functional stupidity” – but what actually is it?
woman presenting something on board

Have you ever worked in an organisation that discourages smart people to think and reflect at work? Have you ever seen a colleague back away from a new way of working because that’s “not how things are done”?

That’s functional stupidity.

In organisations such as this, employees are expected to ‘do’ without question. In the short-term, this may actually be beneficial: it can encourage organisational harmony as everyone pulls together in order to meet a shared goal. It’s why managers and organisations sometimes gravitate towards it.

Yet, functional stupidity – if left unchecked – can kill an organisation. It can cause a business to collapse in on itself, as business as usual slowly tanks profits, erodes productivity and corrupts the culture. Despite this, it’s often inadvertently encouraged by short-sighted organisations and managers, because in the short term, its impacts can seem quite positive.

This is described by functional stupidity experts Mats Alvesson and André Spicer as ‘the stupidity paradox’. Alvesson and Spicer wrote the definitive paper on functional stupidity in 2012, A Stupidity-based theory of organisations. “We spoke with hundreds of people in dozens of organisations,” Spicer wrote. “During the course of our research, we were constantly struck by how these organisations, which employ so many people with high IQs and impressive qualifications, could do so many stupid things.”

Alvesson and Spicer have highlighted several signs that an organisation is suffering from functional stupidity. Here’s what to look for in your team – and yourself – and how to tackle them.

“Don’t Think About It, Just Do It”

Spicer and Alvesson found that many organisations would hire the smartest people that they could find, then subtly and not-so-subtly discourage them from free thinking. “Just do it” is a very common phrase in functionally stupid companies. Good managers in smart organisations listen to staff concerns and make sure that they consider them carefully before acting on them.

“Why Are You Being Negative?”

A genuinely positive culture does not shut people down when they have concerns. Yes, there are such a thing as ‘drains’ that will always find a problem in any venture, but you can work out who those people are pretty quickly. If people in your organisation voice concerns away from the management but change on a dime when they are around, it’s a sure sign that voicing those concerns will be negatively received. As a manager, you have to be prepared to take negative feedback from your team. It can be hard to hear, but you need to be able to take it on board.

“We Don’t Want Problems – Only Solutions”

This one sounds fairly positive, right? Surely solutions are the way forward? Well yes, but this statement and others like it are usually deployed to shut down questions from staff, and reinforces that first message: don’t think about it, just do it.

The more people hear this sort of thing from their managers, the less they point out potential issues, or really think about what they’re doing. And as a result, those issues keep festering.

“It’s Company Policy. You Have To Follow The Process”

Processes and procedures are necessary to ensure that businesses follow regulations, so staff should be aware of them. However, an over-reliance on ‘company policy’ can create an officious and stifling culture. It can make people scared to drift from the established norm. As a result, policies are then over-applied, which then feeds that stifling culture even more.

If your team is full of smart people, they can be trusted to know when policy applies – and when they might need to think outside the box.

There are many other examples of how functional stupidity can manifest itself: managers who are more interested in being seen as a great leader rather than actually managing and empowering their team; mindlessly imitating what other firms or teams or doing without much thought about whether it would work in a different context; an over-emphasis on branding to the extent that it starts adversely affecting company culture.

The tricky thing is that it’s not always easy to spot these things – but once these tenets of stupidity take hold, it can be very difficult to get rid of them.

Want to motivate your team? Find out how you can recognise (and reinvigorate) a stagnant office environment.