Article: The corporate is guilty of dumbing us down


The corporate is guilty of dumbing us down

Stupidity is rewarded, best-practices are counter-productive, and leadership today is in shambles, claims a new book.
The corporate is guilty of dumbing us down

The corporate life has long been suspected of ‘stupidification’ of individuals, and changing them subtly, to toe the line which is expected of them. This attempt to maintain status quo, and letting the present arrangement to sustain, is more or less conscious, as it benefits those at the top of the pyramid. The impact of joining the corporate world on individuals, along with concepts of organisational behaviour, leadership, have been explored in a recent book, and the several studies, interviews, and analysis that went in it.

Who is the author, and what did he study?

Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, Andre Spicer, along with Mats Alvesson, came out with a book this year, The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work. As part of their research, they studies dozens of organisations, hundreds of employees working for engineering firms, government departments, universities, banks, the media and pharmaceutical companies. They started out with the assumption that it was the most intelligent and smartest that got ahead and achieved success, but as they discovered, this wasn’t true. Andre Spicer has previously written a paper that challenges the “one-sided thesis that contemporary organizations rely on the mobilization of cognitive capacities”, and suggested that “severe restrictions on these capacities in the form of what we call functional stupidity are an equally important if under-recognized part of organizational life.”

What did they find?

The author of the book penned down an essay on the Aeon website, explaining the findings of his book, and although the entire essay is full of interesting and insightful claims, supported by examples, we have hand-picked the lessons for you. To retain the essence, and establish the point clearly, the following text has not been paraphrased and presented as is, in the essay:

About using smartness at work:

  • 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... After a few years of experience, they will find that the people who get ahead are the stellar practitioners of corporate mindlessness.
  • 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.

About 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... However, when you take a closer look at what these self-declared leaders spend their days doing, the story is quite different.
  • 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... 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.
  • In their own research, they 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.

About Organisational Behaviour:

  • A big driver of stupidity in many firms is the desire to imitate other organisations... 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.
  • Company cultures imprison employees in narrow ways of viewing the world, such as the common obsession with constant change. 
  • Many corporations create an unwavering focus on the present... 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... Employees’ sincere belief in being positive all the time meant that when genuine problems without an obvious solution appeared, they were overlooked. 

On how to be stupid at work:

  • 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 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... 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... When things go wrong, you can blame your boss.
  • 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, and 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.
  • 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... 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.

The Bottom-Line

The book and its findings verify the conventional and popular wisdom that working in the corporate sector will force you to change, if you want to be successful. Otherwise worthy ideals of intelligence, merit and knowledge are often dislodged of their importance, in the face of corporate mindlessness. As the author says, “...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.”

He also goes onto say that stupidity is best practiced in moderation, for it to truly work. He also notes that the phenomena of large organisations being overrun by stupidity isn’t accidental, but intentional, and involves “organisations purposefully creating a kind of collective mindlessness.” And this bold statement impacts the over two billion people that the corporate sector employs globally. As he rightly concludes, “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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Topics: Culture

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