Stupidity in business can lead to disasters. From absurd routines to idiotic management practices, from lost productivity and slow reaction times to financial catastrophes and organisational collapse. Yet a mindlessness and idiocy can, at least for a while help people do things more easily, can help people get along better and really just get on with it. This is the stupidity paradox. So how is stupidity impacting the way we do business? And should we do anything about it? We talk to Professor Mats Alvesson to find out.

The Stupidity Paradox book

Malcolm and Mats

Mats’ profile

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Sydney Business Insights is a University of Sydney Business School initiative aiming to provide the business community and public, including our students, alumni and partners with a deeper understanding of major issues and trends around the future of business.

Mats Alvesson is a Professor within the Department of Business Administration at Lund University. He is also co-author of the book "The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work".


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Sandra Peter Introduction: Stupidity in business can lead to disasters. From absurd routines, to idiotic management practices, from lost productivity and slow reaction times, to financial catastrophes and organisational collapse. Yet mindlessness and idiocy can, at least for a while, help people do things a bit more easily. Can help people get along more easily, and really can help people just get on with it. This is the stupidity paradox. So how is stupidity impacting the way we do business, and should we do anything about it?

Introduction: From the University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights. The podcast that explores the future of business.

Sandra: I’m Sandra peter, and today we talk to Professor Mats Alvesson, who is the chair of the Business Administration department at Lund University in Sweden, and is also part time Professor at the University of Queensland Business School.

“The Stupidity Paradox: The Powers and Pitfalls of Stupidity”, the book he wrote together with Andre Spicer from Cass Business School in London, was on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s summer reading list – although as Mats cautions, so was Harry Potter – and the concept of functional stupidity was recently officially included in the Swedish language.

Sandra: Welcome and thank you for talking to us today.

Mats: Pleasure being here.

Sandra: You’ve studied a large number of organisations, and found that far from being the knowledge intensive, creative enterprises that they claim to be, much of what goes on in them can be described as, well, stupid. What makes a workplace mindless?

Mats: Well you have a lot of pressure on people to comply, particularly large organisations, you should get along with people, you should adapt to the bureaucratic structures. This management hope that you buy into all the buzz words that are often rather hollow and shallow statements around visions and missions and corporate cultures and so on, so there’s simply a lot of pressure for people to comply.

Sandra: What is functional stupidity?

Mats: There are two elements. One is the function part, and that means that you actually able to do the job in a proper way. You do things correctly and reasonably competent and well educated and don’t create any particular problems. But then you have the stupidity element as well and that means that you are not necessarily thinking through, ‘what is this all about?’, ‘why should I do this?’, what’s the broader purpose?’. They are typically contained within the box thinking. And the combination is people that do the job in an ok way, they do things rightly but they never ask is the right thing to do. So it’s a form of, within the box thinking, a form of mindlessness, but in a reasonably competent way and something that is typically applauded by other people – not thinking too broadly or too deeply about things in workplaces.

Sandra: Are there different types of stupidity at work?

Mats: Yeah, of course there is a lot of pure stupidity. People that are incompetent, doing really stupid things. That is always something that people try to avoid, that’s not appreciated. So with this functional stupidity, the form of stupidities that call for competence, and they call for a certain level of intelligence to be carried out, and it’s important that people don’t see it as stupidity typically, if they’re much into compliance, they’re much into within the box thinking. And then within of course functional stupidity, we have a large number of different versions of this.

Sandra: What would be some examples of that?

Mats: Well people that are seduced by visions and missions, or branding statements, or slogans like ‘we live and die by the brand’ are in many cases ridiculous and exaggerated statements. So seduction is one form of functional stupidity, another could be that people are very much into bureaucratic structures, so they follow all the policies, all the structures, all the procedures, they obey all the laws without any kind of hesitation. Square minded bureaucrats is another example of functional stupidity. There are also professional forms of stupidity, so if you’re professional, you’re an expert, then you’d be much caught by that particular framework. So you see the world in line with your own favoured framework and ideals, so you’ll become a professional idiot. Treat all problems as they fit into your professional framework and are not so inclined to think more broadly or deeply about issues.

Sandra: So what’s the paradoxical nature of stupidity?

Mats: Many forms of stupidity that we are interested in, they are rewarded and celebrated by people. So they’re not seen as stupid, they are not seen as stupid till you take a broader look. Engaging critical reflection, if you can point at this is really not particularly sensible thing to do. So for people that are steeped into a particular form and are used to all this, this is reasonably rational, sensible, the things that you do, you do with everybody else, you follow instructions. So it’s not seen as stupid, but it really is if you look carefully at this. And of course these forms of functional stupidity are typically rewarded and appreciated by people around you. So it’s a form of stupidity that’s actually being celebrated and it’s very popular, and that forms the paradox.

Sandra: Can stupidity work sometimes for the organisation?

Mats: It certainly does. And there are a lot of positive aspects around all this. So it makes social life much easier if nobody is starting to raise serious questions, or doubts, or asking other people ‘what do you really mean?,’ ‘what’s the purpose of all this?,’ ‘Why should we do this?’. If questions like that can be avoided, that’s the point with functional stupidity, then social life is much smoother, the social machine is kind of functioning. So it has a vantage point. With people it means that they can relax a bit more, they can be lazy in terms of commissions and thinking. They can sleep good at night and don’t have to complicate their existence by asking creative questions, such as ‘what in hell are we up to here?’

Sandra: So how and why do organisations actually encourage this functional stupidity?

Mats: It makes life easier for senior people making bureaucracies work, then you need to have lubricators. One lubricator is that people are doing the kind of box thinking they’re supposed to do, following imperatives and their requirements without necessarily then rubbing the surface of the organisation.

Sandra: You’ve studied a number of different types of organisations. Was this common across different types of organisations, is this more prevalent in a specific type of organisation?

Mats: I think this is a bit of an evergreen, so it’s common in most organisations. Indeed it’s quite common in social life. We tend to be flock animals. We like to agree with other people, we do as others do. We often do what we are told, we take the easy way out. So this is quite common, even if it often creates a lot of problems that may go beneath the radar not detected or taken seriously by people. But most organisations we have this pressure to conform, to be a team player, to be loyal, to buy into branding statements, vision, missions, corporate cultures, to identify with the organisation, etc. So most organisations tend to press people or seduce people into these types of mindsets. I think that large organisations tend to have more distance than small organisations. And if you’re into organisations that are not so focused on material production, like manufacturing, machine, or supermarket or something, but to enter organisations that are more into images and ideas, and so on, so consultancy, marketing work and so on, then you tend to have even more functional stupidity than in some other organisations that are a bit more hands on and have more kind of material production as the core of their business.

Sandra: Do you see most individuals entering these places, like consulting organisations falling prey to this functional stupidity?

Mats: Yes, I think that most people attempt to comply. Some people think that this is absurd and very cheeky and then they, in most cases, would leave or they would feel alienated and cynical at work, and that’s not necessarily a good feeling.

Sandra So how can we make our workplaces a little less stupid, how can organisations move away from this functional stupidity?

Mats: It is tricky. I mean, everybody’s saying that we like to have openness and critical thinking and people communicating problems and so on. So on the one level this should not be a problem and we should have corporate cultures and forms of leadership that would avoid or minimise functional stupidity. I think in the real life, most people they are not so eager to open up space and a lot of people they tend to play it quite safe, so it’s tricky to deal with these issues. In our book, The Stupidity Paradox, we have a chapter on anti-stupidity management, and we – it’s me and my co-author Andrew Spicer from Cass Business School in London – and here we point at a number of examples of how you can try to systematically reduce functional stupidity at work.

Sandra: So what are some of these methods?

Mats: Well you can, for example, use newcomers through an organisation. And of course if you’re a newcomer, then you often find a lot of things being peculiar and stupid here. But then you are a bit worried of fitting in, so you don’t say that much, and after some time you get socialised into the corporate way of being, and then you adjust, or you feel this is not you and then you leave. But often you don’t necessarily use the more fresh viewpoints and observations of people coming in from the outside. But one opportunity could be that you appoint somebody that is interviewing newcomers and then ask them to point at what you see is problematic or peculiar in this organisation, and then you gather their experiences and observations, and then you summarise this and say that ‘here are a number of viewpoints’ that you could put on the agenda. I mean normally newcomers are careful in saying too much, but if this is done systematically and anonymously then of course it is easier for people to say ‘this is really bizarre,’ ‘this is really absurd’, ‘how come these people have all these lofty and hollow visions statements that nobody really believes in?’. That’s really absurd and this is perhaps something that we could take seriously and being through the corporate again then people could perhaps discuss this a bit more obviously. And if they’re newcomers saying that this is quite absurd then its clear feedback for people in the organisations that they need to think through this a bit more perhaps and try to change this.

Sandra: So besides newcomers, is there a role for leaders in this, is there a role for appointing people within the organisation or outsiders who can help with this?

Mats: Yeah, I mean the idea of the good consultant is to illuminate organisations from an external point of view, indicate issues that should be addressed more critically. The problem with most consultants is that they are so depending on the client wanting to pay them money, so they often have in the interest in making the client happy, getting further assignments. And most managers they want to hear good news or if there are problems, there are problems in another part of the company than they are immediately responsible before. So you can’t rely that much on consultants in most cases. But you could try other things. That could be to work with Devil’s advocates in organisations. So you appoint a person as a DA – Devil’s advocate – that means that you take on the job of arguing against the conventional view, against what the mainstream most people are advocating. And of course this is a bit of a sensitive issue. But people say ‘now I’m playing the Devil’s advocate’, and you have that as the levy to make a role and appoint people to this. Somebody’s who agreed to take on the task to spend some of the time taking a position that normally would be seen as a bit sensitive and people would refrain from expressing. But if you have that formal assignment then you feel some obligation and you also have some protection, because you can protect behind the formal role, and people understand this and you can also say things: “I don’t necessarily think that our statement here in terms of corporate values, it’s crap”, but if you take a position here that’s a bit more critical, you can say that these statements are extremely vague, they’re extremely positive, they look exactly like all other organisations, they don’t mean shit. I mean normally people would hesitate in doing that but if you say that I’m doing this as the Devil’s advocate then you are allowed to say this. You can have a position like this and it could rotate all through the company and then it makes it a bit easier than to say things that normally are unsaid in many organisations.

Sandra: So legitimising this within the organisation.

Mats: Precisely, yes, but of course normally you need some protection. You need to have some role or some base for saying things or pointing at issues that most people that are more politically sensitive and like to make friends with everybody, and so on, they would be very hesitant in raising because the risk is always that you become a bit unpopular and that’s a career limiting move to say things that stands out negatively. But if there’s some protection around the role then it’s easier to do this, and I think the idea working with devils advocates as a formal role, perhaps on a rotating basis, that could be very good for many organisations.

Sandra: In your research, have you come across particular organisations that either manage to stay away from functional stupidity or that manage it in a better way, any positive examples?

Mats: Yeah, I mean you have examples of course of companies that are using functional stupidity in a reasonably productive way. I studied one IT consulting firm with about 500 employees and they had such be very kind of positive, don’t express critique unless you have a constructive proposal. This can be seen as fuelling functional stupidity, because being positive and refraining from pointing at problems, it makes the workplace a bit more happy – people and moaning and groaning and pointing at issues they are being kind of a bit marginalised – so it’s like a happy atmosphere and people felt satisfied and they had a nice attitude to show to clients and so on. So one form of cultivating a mild form here of functional stupidity has actually aided the company that was on a positive note. This should not be underestimated. So most organisations need to have an element of functional stupidity to have enthusiasm and consensus and feeling happy people at work and so on. Also in this case there was kind of costs, so when the market went down they were not so good at communicating negative knowledge, or even see the signs of market going down here. So they were a bit slow in adapting, so the kind of positive sides of functional stupidity also had its costs, or drawbacks, and that’s difficult to fully avoid.

I think there are some companies that try to be quite rational and reasonable, so they try to avoid too much of this kind of fluffiness. I mean, many companies they have a surplus of visions and missions, and a lot of strategies and policies and structures and procedures, so every bloody problem should somehow be addressed by expertise, a lot of routines, an endless number procedures to take care of everything. I mean that’s quite common and of course all these solutions they create often more problems that they solve. But some companies they are working a bit more kind of hands on, rational, reasonable way, I don’t know that many examples at close range but I think some companies are more into this. Swedish Bank, Handels Bank, they tried to get rid of the necessary stuff, look at what they’re accomplishing as much as possible, looking at local bank offices and their performances and skipped a lot of kind of unnecessary managerials that normally is typical of organisations, so that’s an example of organisations that tried to be rational. I think there are a lot of other examples as well but in most cases there tends to be piling up incentives to be functionally stupid.

Sandra: So is it inevitable, functional stupidity, as the organisation grows?

Mats: To some extent, yes, because it’s in our nature as people. We like to hear positive news, you should be positive, you should be enthusiastic. We like to hear good news. We are easily seduced by positive messages and so on. So I think that’s difficult to avoid and we need some of this. We want to be buying into self-serving bias, that we are good and we are better than average. This company is better than others and so on. So we have lots of stuff like that. So it’s inevitable. And we tend to also agree with other people. Social animals, this is part of our DNA. So in that sense it’s unavoidable. It’s also something that partly is positive, because functional stupidity is functional. And then it serves a clear social purpose. So organisations are, in one sense then, hot houses for functional stupidity. But the problematic thing is often the stupidity part. It takes the upper hand. It becomes more stupid than functional. And therefore we need to be careful about this and try to minimise, in many cases, functional stupidity. And I think we can do that a bit better, but the problem is that many people are in the business of cultivating. So branding experts, many marketeers, many consultants, many people in communication, many managers, and many leaders. They are really into this business. And then we have a surplus of functional stupidity. In most, particularly large, organisations.

Sandra: So we should all be on the lookout for functional stupidity around us and try to do something about it

Mats: To combat it and minimise it where possible.

Sandra: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Mats: Thank you. A pleasure being here.

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