Essay/Work

Stupefied

How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door

André Spicer

Yes! Photo by Westend61/Stefan Kranefeld/Gallery Stock

André Spicer

is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, where he specialises in political dynamics, organisational culture and employee identity. His latest book, together with Mats Alvesson, is The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work (2016). 

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3,400 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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Each summer, thousands of the best and brightest graduates join the workforce. Their well-above-average raw intelligence will have been carefully crafted through years at the world’s best universities. After emerging from their selective undergraduate programmes and competitive graduate schools, these new recruits hope that their jobs will give them ample opportunity to put their intellectual gifts to work. But they are in for an unpleasant surprise.   

Smart young things joining the workforce soon discover that, although they have been selected for their intelligence, they are not expected to use it. They will be assigned routine tasks that they will consider stupid. If they happen to make the mistake of actually using their intelligence, they will be met with pained groans from colleagues and polite warnings from their bosses. After a few years of experience, they will find that the people who get ahead are the stellar practitioners of corporate mindlessness.

One well-known firm that Mats Alvesson and I studied for our book The Stupidity Paradox (2016) said it employed only the best and the brightest. When these smart new recruits arrived in the office, they expected great intellectual challenges. However, they quickly found themselves working long hours on ‘boring’ and ‘pointless’ routine work. After a few years of dull tasks, they hoped that they’d move on to more interesting things. But this did not happen. As they rose through the ranks, these ambitious young consultants realised that what was most important was not coming up with a well-thought-through solution. It was keeping clients happy with impressive PowerPoint shows. Those who did insist on carefully thinking through their client’s problems often found their ideas unwelcome. If they persisted in using their brains, they were often politely told that the office might not be the place for them.

One new recruit who faced this problem was Jack. After years at graduate school, he was a specialist in corporate governance. Hoping to use his expertise to make a difference in the real world, he joined a large consulting firm. He quickly found that he was working on a range of projects that had absolutely nothing to do with his expertise. Even though he presented to clients as a global expert, he knew little more than what he found in a few minutes searching the company intranet. He learned that his main job was to make a good impression with the client, not to solve their problems. He knew that, if he actually tried to use his expertise in a meaningful way, his superiors would not be happy.

For more than a decade, we’ve been studying dozens of organisations such as this management consultancy, employing people with high IQs and impressive educations. We have spoken with hundreds of people working for engineering firms, government departments, universities, banks, the media and pharmaceutical companies. We started out thinking it is likely to be the smartest who got ahead. But we discovered this wasn’t the case.

Organisations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways.

Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. By avoiding thinking too much, they are able to focus on getting things done. Escaping the kind of uncomfortable questions that thinking brings to light also allows employees to side-step conflict with co-workers. By toeing the corporate line, thoughtless employees get seen as ‘leadership material’ and promoted. Smart people quickly learn that getting ahead means switching off their brains as soon as they step into the office.

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We found many ways that all kinds of organisations positively encouraged intelligent people not to fully use their intelligence. There were rules and routines that prompted them to focus energies on complying with bureaucracy instead of doing their jobs. There were doctors who spent more time ‘playing the tick-box game’ than actually caring for patients; teachers who spent more time negotiating new bureaucratic procedures than teaching children. We met Hans, a manager in a local government agency: after a visit from a regulator, his office received a list of 25 issues in need of improvement. So Hans’s agency developed 25 new policies and procedures. The result: the regulator was happy, but there was no change in actual practice. Such stories showed us how mindless compliance with rules and regulations can detract people from actually doing their jobs. The doctors, teachers and government officials all knew that the rules and regulations they spent their days complying with were pointless diversions. However, they chose not to think about this too much. Instead, they just got on with ticking the boxes.     

Another significant source of stupidity in firms we came across was a deep faith in leadership. In most organisations today, senior executives are not content with just being managers. They want to be leaders. They see their role as not just running their business but also transforming their followers. They talk about ‘vision’, ‘belief’ and ‘authenticity’ with great verve. All this sounds like our office buildings are brimming with would-be Nelson Mandelas. However, when you take a closer look at what these self-declared leaders spend their days doing, the story is quite different.

George saw himself as a very ‘open’ manager. Staff told us he provided breakfast in the morning and an annual beer-tasting

No matter how hard you search there is little – if any – leadership to be found. What most executives actually spend their days doing is sitting in meetings, filling in forms and communicating information. In other words, they are bureaucrats. But being a bureaucrat is not particularly exciting. It also doesn’t look very good on your business card. To make their roles seem more important and exciting than they actually are, corporate executives become leadership addicts. They read leadership books. They give lengthy talks to yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly they attend many courses, seminars and meetings with ‘leadership’ somewhere in the title. The content of many of these leadership-development courses would not be out of place in a kindergarten or a New Age commune. There are leadership-development courses where participants are asked to lead a horse around a yard, use colouring-in books, or build Lego – all in the name of developing them as leaders.

At least $14 billion gets spent every year on leadership development in the US alone yet, according to researchers such as Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford, it has virtually no impact on improving the quality of leaders. In our own research, we found that most employees in knowledge-intensive firms didn’t need much leadership. People working at the coalface were self-motivated and often knew their jobs much better than their bosses did. Their superiors’ cack-handed attempts to be leaders were often seen as a pointless distraction from the real work. George, a manager in a high-tech engineering firm, told us he saw himself as a very ‘open’. When we asked his subordinates what he actually did, they told us that he provides breakfast in the morning and runs an annual beer-tasting.

Another particularly rich source of stupidity in organisations is the deep belief in the power of brands. Many organisations seem to assume that, just by changing the signage, it’s possible to transform the entire company. Sadly, this is almost always wishful thinking on the part of senior executives. We saw costly rebranding initiatives that involved changing the logo of an organisation, but little else. The University of Western Sydney spent millions to transform itself by becoming ‘Western Sydney University’. The Australian Opera also underwent a costly rebranding process to become ‘Opera Australia’. National Bank of Australia hoped to overhaul itself by becoming ‘National Australia Bank’.

Often, this fascination with branding can be little more than a distraction. In one company we studied, we met a group of marketing executives whose job it was to sell a range of products including toothpaste. Naturally, they were very enthusiastic about the magical power of branding. One executive told us ‘you live and die’ by your brand. But when we asked them more about what actually mattered in selling toothpaste, we were told that consumers will ‘just pick anything on a shelf that’s on promotion’ and that ‘people aren’t really interested in toothpaste’. All that counted, they admitted, was the price.

In many organisations, a fascination with branding can become a dangerous distraction. A few years ago, senior figures in the Swedish armed forces decided to run a large rebranding exercise. Unfortunately, this meant they had to cancel some military exercises. When the rebranding initiative was introduced, a commander said: ‘You have to break eggs to make an omelette. It is clear that some will think it is tough along the way, but it will be a damn fine omelette.’ After millions were spent replacing everything from signs to tableware, the top official in the military admitted that the rebranding initiative had been a mistake. It was quietly dropped, but not after creating a significant amount of resentment.

We found another particularly tragic case of rebranding at British Airways in the late 1990s. Following a strategic change, senior executives decided to make the company more globally oriented. To do this, they rebranded British Airways as ‘The world’s favourite airline’ and replaced the Union flag on its planes’ tailfins with ‘world art’ designs. The change sparked widespread public outcry: even the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher entered the fray, covering a model plane featuring the new designs with her handkerchief. In only a matter of weeks, the airline reverted to its old livery. Although little had changed, millions had been spent in the process.  

Another big driver of stupidity in many firms is the desire to imitate other organisations. As Jan Wallander, the ex-chairman of Sweden’s Handelsbanken, said: ‘Business leaders are just as fashion-conscious as teenage girls choosing jeans.’ Many companies adopt the latest management fads, no matter how unsuitable they are. If Google is doing it, then it’s good enough reason to introduce nearly any practice, from mindfulness to big-data analytics.

But often there are very weak reasons for following ‘industry best practice’. For instance, when the Swedish armed forces decided to start using Total Quality Management techniques, some officers naturally asked: ‘Why?’ The response: ‘This is presumably something we benefit from, since this is what they do in the private sector.’ In other words, we should do it because others are doing it.

But adopting ‘best practice’ often has little or no impact. One study of oil and gas companies found that they would introduce diversity programmes that had little impact on making people more tolerant. One employee commented: ‘It really is a feel-good exercise. You know we can all feel good that we are this happy multi-coloured family – that’s going to bring in all this money for the firm. The truth is quite another matter.’

Sometimes, following industry best practice can result in worse outcomes. An example of this is companies giving ever-higher pay to their chief executive officers. One analysis found that US companies would pay above-average salaries for top new appointments in the hope of attracting above-average candidates. But, ultimately, the high pay had no impact on a firm’s performance. All it did was ratchet up the amount that companies across the economy were willing to spend on senior executives.

Managers would spend their days trying to claim responsibility for projects that had been seen to succeed and dodge responsibility for failures

One last source of corporate stupidity we came across was company culture. Often, these cultures imprison employees in narrow ways of viewing the world, such as the common obsession with constant change. One hi-tech company we studied was very enthusiastic about change, and launched new change initiatives every few years, often with little or no real results. The programme would be launched with great fanfare, but not much happened next. Everyone seemed to think that someone else was responsible for creating change. And when it became clear that nothing substantive was changing, senior executives dropped the initiative and moved on to the next fashionable change programme without learning anything.

Many corporations create an unwavering focus on the present. In Moral Mazes (2009), a study of the culture in one large US corporation, Robert Jackall found that managers would frequently say things such as: ‘Our horizon is today’s lunch’ or ‘I know what you did for me yesterday, but what have you done for me recently?’ This extremely short time-horizon meant that managers would spend their days trying to claim responsibility for projects that had been seen to succeed and dodge responsibility for failures.

A culture of unflappable positivity is also popular with many companies. In an IT consultancy we studied, employees were constantly told: ‘Don’t bring us problems, only bring us solutions.’ This upbeat message aimed to create a happy workplace. But one consultant who knew the firm well was not so sure. When we asked him to describe the company, he told us: ‘It’s not a firm, it’s a religion.’ Employees’ sincere belief in being positive all the time meant that when genuine problems without an obvious solution appeared, they were overlooked. When the economy went through a large downturn, the company’s upbeat attitude left employees unable to make necessary changes until it was too late.

At the outset of our research, we suspected that organisational life would be full of stupidities. But we were genuinely surprised that otherwise smart people would go along with collective stupidity, and be rewarded for doing so. Mindlessly following rules and regulations – even if they were completely counterproductive – meant that professionals would be left alone. Using empty leadership talk would get ambitious people promoted into positions of responsibility. Copying other well-known organisations meant a firm could be seen as ‘world-class’. Launching branding initiatives meant that executives could focus on the easier work of manipulating surface images and avoid the much messier realities of organisational life. Following deep-seated corporate cultures often meant employees could be seen as committed organisational citizens while overlooking festering problems.  

Although corporate mindlessness comes with some big pay-offs, we also noticed it could be very costly. When smart people stopped fully using their intelligence, they would often overlook mistakes. Usually, this wouldn’t matter: companies can be large organisations that offer plenty of places to hide mistakes. What’s more, people in corporations have short attention spans. Perpetrators of blunders will likely have moved onwards (often upwards) before their mistakes becomes obvious. ‘Always try to outrun your mistakes’ was one middle-manager’s key career advice.

However, there are times when it’s impossible to hide the rotten fruits of the collective stupidity. This is what happened at Nokia. Between 2007 and 2013, managers at the telecommunications firm were encouraged to be relentlessly positive. One middle-manager described how ‘if you were too negative, it would be your head on the block’. As a result, employees wanted to give senior managers only ‘good news’ but ‘not a reality check’. Naysayers found their divisions starved of resources, while upbeat corporate yes-men were given ever more responsibility. When there was a genuine problem with Nokia’s new smartphones, developed to compete with Apple’s iPhone, few dared to speak up. This meant that senior management took more than a year to realise they were on a losing streak. By that time, Apple and Samsung were well on their way to dominating the smartphone market.

This cautionary tale reminds us that, although acting stupid can come with some significant short-term rewards such as popularity and promotion, it also comes with longer-term risks. This suggests a dose of stupidity at work is like most things: good in moderation. 

Acting stupid at work is a subtle art. If you underdo it, people will suspect you are putting on an act. If you overdo it, they will start to think you are a liability. However, there are some tactics that skilled practitioners of corporate stupidity use to get it just right.

One of the most common tactics is doing what everyone else is doing, even if it is wrong. If your competitor introduces a new strategy, do the same – no matter how wrong-headed it might be. If another competitor starts a Total Quality Management initiative, follow suit. It’s often advisable to copy iconic companies such as Google – even if you are in an entirely different industry. If you call it ‘best practice’, you might be hailed as a genius. When it goes wrong, you can say: ‘Well, everyone got it wrong.’

In a world where stupidity dominates, looking good is more important than being right. Advanced practitioners of corporate stupidity often spend less time on the content of their work and more on its presentation. They know that a decision-maker sees only the PowerPoint show and reads just the executive summary (if they’re lucky). They also realise that most stupid ideas are routinely accepted when they’re presented well. Decision-makers will likely forget much of the content by the time they walk out the door. And when things go wrong, they can say: ‘They didn’t read the fine-print.’

Negotiating corporate stupidity also requires assuming that the boss knows best. This means doing what your boss wants, no matter how idiotic. What is even more important is that you should do what your boss’s boss wants. You will look like you are loyal and it will save time arguing for your position. When things go wrong, you can blame your boss.

Working in a stupefied firm often means blinding others with bullshit. A very effective way to get out of doing anything real is to rely on a flurry of management jargon. Develop strategies, generate business models, engage in thought leadership. This will get you off the hook of doing any actual work. It will also make you seem like you are at the cutting edge. When things go wrong, you can blame the fashionable management idea.

Take the glory that comes from success and move on before you’re saddled with any costs. That way, someone else is left to clean up the mess

Being overly opportunistic is also advisable. Most individuals can easily fool themselves into believing anything if it benefits them. When people are paid enough, they will believe almost anything. So if you justify your commitment to a stupid course of action, just ensure that everyone knows you’re only doing it for the money. That way, when things go wrong, you can blame the incentive structure.

The final piece of advice for any practitioner of corporate stupidity is to keep moving. It is vital to avoid being landed with your own mistakes. Take the glory that comes from short-term success and move on before you’re saddled with any longer-term costs. That way, when things go wrong, someone else is left to clean up the mess.

For the past two decades, management theorists have been convinced that organisations succeed or fail on the basis of their specialised knowledge. However, our close look at the corporate world showed quite a different picture: many large corporations seemed over-run by stupidity. What’s more, this stupidity is not just the accidental result of a few corporate buffoons. It is often intentionally created. This is much more than taking advantage of the various inbuilt cognitive biases with which behavioural economists are so obsessed. Rather, it involved organisations purposefully creating a kind of collective mindlessness.

We saw firms going out of their way to block employees from reflecting on their assumptions, to discourage them for thinking about their substantive goals, and to impede them from giving or asking for justifications for their decisions and actions. By doing this, organisations often create functional outcomes both for individuals (such as career progression) and the whole organisation (such as the ability to avoid conflict and focus on common goals). While these favourable outcomes dominate in the short term, collective stupidity can create disfunction in the longer term, including a lack of learning and an imperviousness to mistakes. Perhaps management thinkers need to stop clinging to knowledge-based theories of organisations and start developing a stupidity-based theory of how organisations are run.

 

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