Excerpt from the book The Stupidity Paradox – The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work by Professor Mats Alvesson and Professor André Spicer. (Profile Books)

Functional stupidity can be catastrophic. It can cause organisational collapse, financial meltdown and technical disaster. And there are countless, more everyday examples of organisations accepting the dubious, the absurd and the downright idiotic, from unsustainable management fads to the cult of leadership or an over-reliance on brand and image.

And yet a dose of stupidity can be useful and produce good, short-term results: it can nurture harmony, encourage people to get on with the job and drive success. This is the stupidity paradox.

The book The Stupidity Paradox tackles head-on the pros and cons of functional stupidity. You’ll discover what makes a workplace mindless, why being stupid might be a good thing in the short term but a disaster in the longer term, and how to make your workplace a little less stupid by challenging thoughtless conformity. It shows how harmony and action in the workplace can be balanced with a culture of questioning and challenge.

The book is a wake-up call for smart organisations and smarter people. It encourages us to use our intelligence fully for the sake of personal satisfaction, organisational success and the flourishing of society as a whole.

We are publishing a short excerpt from the book with permission from the authors Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, and Profile Books, the publishing company.

Part One: Stupidity Today
Chapter 2: Not so smart

Ignorance  Overlooking what is blindingly obvious can be a nasty side effect of professional obsessions. But there are also many cases when we ignore crucial information because it is in our best interests.

The fact that we so often turn a blind eye to inconvenient facts can be seen in an experiment conducted by Joël van der Weele. He got groups of German university students to play a game where it paid to collaborate. Economists use this kind of game all the time to test out how people make decisions about collaboration, but there were a few unusual twists to this experiment. First, one of the players could pick the rules. Second, they could choose to remain ignorant about whether it paid to collaborate.

“Why being stupid might be a good thing in the short term but a disaster in the longer term”

The researcher found that people were five times more likely to choose to remain ignorant when it was in their own interests. Further, he found that when people chose ignorance they were twice as likely to engage in selfish behaviour. The implication was clear: when it is in line with our own selfish interests, we often choose to remain ignorant, and when we pick ignorance we act selfishly.

This study was conducted in the rather artificial setting of a computer lab in a university department. We might not be so surprised that students studying economics are willing to overlook information when it is not in their interests and that they act selfishly. After all, economists are often more inclined than others to maximise their self-interests.

However, the kind of behaviour that Joël van der Weele discovered in the lab can be seen all around us in everyday life. People at high risk of contracting an STD often avoid getting tested, wealthy people avoid driving through poor neighbourhoods, investors monitor their portfolios less when the market is declining. We tend to go out of our way to ignore crucial information when the results might be disturbing or not in our best interests.

Consider the scandal at Volkswagen during 2015, when it was revealed that VW had installed ‘defeat devices’ into over 800,000 of its cars. These allowed the cars to pass increasingly stringent emissions tests through limiting the output of noxious gases only when the output was being tested. At other times the car would be up to five times more polluting.

Senior executives at VW initially claimed that they had no knowledge of these devices. Although this is a matter of debate, in many ways it was in their best interests to remain ignorant. By not knowing about the covert technology, executives were able to claim unabashed that the cars their company made were clean and green, cheap to produce and also had high levels of performance. When the bad news came out, they could also claim that they had no knowledge of these underhand means.

Usually, we associate ignorance with having too little knowledge about a topic. Ignorance can be a great spur for unreasonable action. An excellent example of this is when senior managers adopt a new management technique such as TQM (total quality management). One study of the implementation of TQM found that managers were usually ignorant of the technical details. As a result, they have unrealistic expectations of its potential. Because they have little idea about the outcome, they are all the more keen to give the ideas a try. This ignorance means most managements can charge headlong into implementing new fads and fashion that they don’t understand.

Ignorance can be an important motivator. Often it is people who are ignorant of the potential chances of success who are the keenest to act. One of the more curious reasons for this is the ‘Dunning-Kruger Effect.’ This is the tendency of people with very low levels of skill to systematically and unreasonably overestimate their abilities.

“We tend to go out of our way to ignore crucial information when the results might be disturbing or not in our best interests”

This effect was identified in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two psychologists working at Cornell University. They were inspired by the unfortunate case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks disguised only by lemon juice rubbed on his face. He believed this would make him invisible to security cameras.

Dunning and Kruger wanted to know whether such delusions were unique to a few idiotic criminals or whether they were more common than we think. They conducted a series of experiments where they asked people to rate their own skill at some basic tasks like humour, grammar and logic. They also measured people’s performances on each of these tasks. They found that: “participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humour, grammar and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put subjects in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.” In other words, the least skilled were not just bad at the tasks, they were also bad at recognising their own incompetence and poor at asking for help.

We might expect ignorance from incompetent amateurs, and yet hope for more from professionals. But the University of Chicago sociologist Andrew Abbott thinks we might be too optimistic. In 2010 he examined research published in his own area of expertise: the sociology of the professions. He was struck by the amount of ignorance he found. There were many pieces of work by amateurs who blundered into the debates and made claims that were either patently wrong or excruciatingly obvious. 

Any area of knowledge or expertise will always have chumps who think they have discovered a great insight when in fact they are merely repeating a mundane point. The hearer learns to smile and switch off when faced with such characters. What was more troubling for Abbott was a second kind of ignorance he detected among experts. He noticed that many people who should know better often overlooked vital or blindingly obvious points. It meant they were unable to see things that an outsider would readily perceive. It was often the experts’ own expertise that blinded them. Trapped within what they knew, they missed the obvious.

All too often it is useful to be able to profess ignorance about awkward facts. Knowing what to know, but also what not to know, is a crucial skill that people working in any organisation pick up rather quickly. The sociologist Linsey McGoey has explored how this strategic ignorance works in a range of settings. For instance, in the wake of the financial crisis, many of the senior managers of large banks pleaded that they had been ignorant about what their employees were doing.

In organisations, there are often subtle procedures of ignorance, where people avoid informing senior people about problems. This is because senior managers do not want to face too many complicated issues. They also want to be able to claim ignorance when ‘blame time’ arrives. This can of course be a pure blame-avoidance tactic, but normally it is good to actually be ignorant. You have a clean conscience and you don’t have to think about issues that go on under the radar. If things go wrong, it is difficult to prove that you really were told. There is a tricky relation between being informed about things that must be managed and being ignorant about issues that may go away or never come into light.

“Knowledge-intensive organisations are often crowded with people with limited emotional and practical intelligence”

Junior people are often faced with a difficult choice: should they inform senior people and risk being seen as someone disturbing the peace by telling them things they prefer to be ignorant about, or do they want to leave their superiors in blissful ignorance and risk being blamed for not having informed them about a problem that may escalate?

If we take a look at the managers at the company Technovation, we find an interesting case of ignorance at work. The managers of the software development teams felt they had to support innovation and do ‘creativity management.’ However, it was not really something they were required to do. Their main goals were improving details of products and minimising errors. Seduced by the images of companies like Google and Apple, they wanted to emulate these firms by becoming more innovative and creative, but this turned out to be easier said than done.

The various initiatives they tried did not always work very well, and rather than deal with these failures, managers largely ignored them. They silently dropped initiatives, without looking into whether they worked or not. Not learning from experiences helped these managers to concentrate on doing something new. Ignorance was bliss. Managerial ignorance can allow you to continue your work without the pesky pressure of having to think and reflect. Genuine learning sounds great, but it takes time and energy. It is tricky, complex and ambiguous work. It can also lead to hesitation, doubts and other costly downsides.

Conclusion  Many contemporary organisations claim to be knowledge-intensive firms, but such claims can be thoroughly misleading. For sure, there are organisations that rely on intelligent, well-educated and creative people. Some organisations have units staffed by people who specialise in sophisticated problem-solving, and there are those who do this, but these activities tend to be rare. But most organisations are actually hothouses of non-knowledge-intensive work.

Of course a degree of competence is needed, and few jobs are entirely brainless, but supposedly knowledge-intensive organisations are often crowded with people with limited emotional and practical intelligence. These smart people may avoid careful analytical processes and instead rely on fast and frugal mental rules of thumb to get the job done. What’s more, many firms actively encourage employees not to exert their intelligence overmuch. They push smart people into dumb jobs, swamp staff with information, enforce behavioural scripts that are followed mindlessly, encourage colleagues to avoid addressing tough questions, and incentivise experts and amateurs alike to be ignorant.

“We are often much poorer information-processors than we believe … often guided by emotions, fixed ideas or assumptions”

As a result organisations can often help to encourage remarkably bright people to do stupid things. And people’s inclinations to use their brains in narrow, unreflective ways lead to less wise decision-making and working practices.

We like to think that we as human beings are very intelligent creatures, but there is also overwhelming evidence that we make fundamental cognitive mistakes. We are often much poorer information-processors than we believe. We engage in wishful thinking, jump to conclusions, overestimate positive outcomes. We are often guided by emotions, fixed ideas or assumptions. Work life is often more comfortable if it is carried out mindlessly. Ignorance often is bliss. All this enables us to avoid difficult issues.

Human psychology and the organisation of work can be a big impediment to our cognitive functioning. It can mean we don’t make full use of our intelligence, reach less than rational decisions, and even act in stupid ways. Normally we think that this is a bad thing, but it is only part of the picture. Being stupid has its upsides. In fact, it is something that many organisations positively encourage.

In the following chapters we ask how stupidity can be functional.

Mats Alvesson is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Lund, Sweden, University of Queensland and Cass Business School, City University, London. He has published extensively across a wide range of organisational behaviour topics and issues, is one of the mostly frequently cited European researchers in management and organisation studies and a sought-after speaker around the globe.

André Spicer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University, London, known for his research in the areas of the human side of work, leadership and ethics. He is widely published in both academic literature and the general business media and is a frequent commentator on sustainability business, behaviours at work and business culture.