Book review: The Stupidity Paradox, by Mats Alvesson and Andree Spicer

The dubious benefits of encouraging workplace brainlessness

The Stupidity Paradox, The Power And Pitfalls Of Functional Stupidity At Work

The Stupidity Paradox, The Power And Pitfalls Of Functional Stupidity At Work

Mon, Jun 6, 2016, 01:30

   
 

Book Title:
The stupidity paradox, the power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work by Mats Alvesson and Andree Spicer. Pearson €14.99 paperback. ISBN: 9781781255414. 276pp. Why is it that seemingly smart organisations encourage what could be viewed as stupidity in the organisations? That’s the profound question addressed in this interesting and engaging book. As the authors, both of whom are professors of organisational behaviour, note, shutting off parts of your brain at work is understandable when you consider the benefits it bestows. Employees are spared from using their cognitive abilities and can coast, free from the worry of doubt. They are not seen as troublemakers asking awkward questions but rather can display the resolute certainty that singles them out as ‘leadership material’. This often suits the organisations too. By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. Convenience trumps inconvenient truths. This can have catastrophic effects, however. When people start ignoring contradictions or inconsistencies, a climate for breeding mistakes develops. At best, a gulf develops between rhetoric and reality. Cynicism and disengagement follows, infecting not only employers but wider stakeholders such as customers, communities, suppliers, partners, investors and regulators. The conditions for wider problems can develop. One only has to think of the 2008 financial crisis as a case in point. The book casts a strong light on many of the assumptions about how smart organisations are. Many organisations, it appears, claim that they rely on well-educated, reflective, bright people who are anxious to learn but the reality is that they rely on the opposite; discipline, order, mindless enthusiasm, conformity and a willingness to be seduced by the most ludicrous ideas. The knowledge economy is a particular focus of scrutiny, with scepticism about the role of universities. It quotes a recent US study which tested 2,300 undergraduates at 29 colleges. When they started in college and then two and four years later. After four years of study 36 per cent of students had made little or no improvement in their ability to think and analyse problems. Business students typically performed worse than they had in high school. Acknowledging the fact that many universities have high standards, especially in traditional disciplines such as engineering and medicine, the authors focus on the dumbing down taking

ISBN-13:
978-1781255414

Author:
Mats Alvesson

Publisher:
Pearson

Guideline Price:
€14.99

Why is it that seemingly smart organisations encourage what could be viewed as stupidity in their workplaces? That’s the profound question addressed in this interesting and engaging book.  

As the authors, both of whom are professors of organisational behaviour, note, shutting off parts of your brain at work is understandable when you consider the benefits it bestows. Employees are spared from using their cognitive abilities and can coast, free from the worry of doubt. They are not seen as troublemakers asking awkward questions but rather can display the resolute certainty that singles them out as “leadership material”.

This often suits the organisations too. By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. Convenience trumps inconvenient truths.

This can have catastrophic effects, however. When people start ignoring contradictions or inconsistencies, a climate for breeding mistakes develops. At best, a gulf develops between rhetoric and reality. Cynicism and disengagement follow, infecting not only employers but wider stakeholders such as customers, communities, suppliers, partners, investors and regulators. The conditions for wider problems can develop. One only has to think of the 2008 financial crisis as a case in point.

Knowledge economy

The book casts a strong light on many of the assumptions about how smart organisations are. Many organisations, it appears, claim that they rely on well-educated, reflective, bright people who are anxious to learn, but the reality is that they rely on discipline, order, mindless enthusiasm, conformity and a willingness to be seduced by the most ludicrous ideas.

The knowledge economy is a particular focus of scrutiny, with scepticism about the role of universities. The book’s authors quote a recent US study which tested 2,300 undergraduates at 29 colleges. When they started in college and then two and four years later. After four years of study, 36 per cent of students had made little or no improvement in their ability to think and analyse problems. Business students typically performed worse than they had in high school.

Acknowledging the fact that many universities have high standards, especially in traditional disciplines such as engineering and medicine, the authors focus on the dumbing down taking place at the lower end of the college spectrum. Entire fields of study have emerged from what was once quickly learned on the job. Some universities, for example, have started to offer degree level courses in bartending and spa management, they note. For many students, attending lectures is an opportunity to check Facebook, with some colleges offering courses on subjects like Beyoncé, David Beckham, zombies and Star Wars.

The imbalance between academic work and the administration of universities is also addressed. Most UK universities, it is noted, now comprise of more administration staff than faculty members, suggesting that the purpose of higher education is not so much education and research as the administration of same.

There’s scepticism here too about concentrating on the positive effects of investment in telecommunications activity. Assuming that access to the internet can make a country knowledge-intensive is misguided. It could be argued, the authors say, that the extension of internet access has not just given people greater opportunities to share knowledge, it “has also radically expanded the opportunities for people to engage in mindless activities such as playing Candy Crush”.

Returning to the key focus of the book, the authors suggest that organisations should encourage critical thinking, however hard this may first appear.

Observation is vital. Beneath the surface or beyond common sense, different agendas may be playing out. For example, a discussion about strategies may be more about someone trying to boost their identities as strategists or a manager talking to a subordinate may be less about visionary leadership than it is about reinforcing their hierarchical dominance.

Critical thinking involves hard questions about the assumptions a manager or an organisation is making; about the reasoning behind strategies or actions, and the broader outcome of such approaches. Asking these disruptive questions may bring many unseen or un-thought-out issues and problems to light.