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 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.

Chapter 2: Not so smart

Mindlessness  One of the ways people manage their own intellectual limits is by following present patterns. Bureaucrats working in the budget office would plod through very familiar steps every year while developing a new budget.

In the early 1970s, two psychologists noticed similar processes among the subjects in their lab. Ellen Langer and Robert Abelson realised that much of the time we don’t think too deeply about our own behaviour. Instead, we quickly slip into preprogrammed patterns of behaviour that they called ‘social scripts.’ We are like actors who dutifully follow a script we have been handed which tells us what to do and what to say. To test their ideas out, Langer and Abelson got one of their assistants to ask people coming into their lab for help. Each request was the same apart from a few subtle changes. Half of the time, the assistant seeking help presented themself as a victim by saying: ‘My knee is killing me.’ The other half of the time, the assistant simply said: ‘Would you do something for me?’ They found that when the assistant presented as a victim, they would be helped 75 per cent of the time. While if they just asked for aid, they were only helped 42 per cent of the time.

“One of the ways people manage their own intellectual limits is by following present patterns”

The reason why there was such a big difference in responses, Langer and Abelson thought, was that each request cued very different scripts. Complaining about a sore knee cued a victim script, and the associated moral obligation to help a victim out. When we are asked if we will do something for someone else, we consult a different script that is much more neutral. If we say no, we will not feel too bad. In both cases, the script does the thinking for us.

Langer and Abelson recognised that scripts have an influence on our lives that reaches far beyond whether we decide to help someone else or not. Scripts drive all sorts of mindless behaviour. For instance, they found that the way a man in a film was first introduced would change how an audience of therapists saw him. When the man concerned was introduced as a ‘job applicant’, the psychotherapists described him as ‘candid and innovative’, ‘attractive and conventional-looking’ and ‘ordinary’. If the man was introduced as a ‘patient’, they described him as a ‘passive, dependent type’, with ‘considerable hostility’, and suffering ‘conflict over homosexuality.’ Changing the way the man in the film was labelled triggered different scripts. When he was a job applicant, the psychotherapists looked for signs that he was normal. When he was a ‘patient’, they looked for signs that he was abnormal.

The big insight that came from Langer and Abelson’s work was that much of the time, we mindlessly follow scripts. Faced with a novel situation, we look for clues about what script to follow. Once we decide on the scenario, we slip into mindless script-following. We also start to ignore contextual information. We grow rigid in our view of an issue, robotically adopting a familiar course of action.

Think about a routine service transaction. When you walk up and ask for help, the person behind the counter quickly tries to work out what script applies. Once they have figured this out, they are likely to grow more and more rigid about what they will and won’t do. If you make any special requests, the person behind the counter is likely to bat them away. It is not just routine service employees who follow established scripts. Large chunks of what goes on in organisations entail simply following scripts. Meetings are highly scripted behaviour that we mindlessly work through. Job interviews also follow a script. So do emails. Much of this is sensible and necessary but can easily lead to mindless routine-following behaviour.

“A dose of stupidity can be useful and produce good, short-term results”

One of us studied managers who claimed to do leadership. They said that having coffee with their subordinates, listening to them or engaging them in small talk had a significant impact on them. They saw this as an exercise of leadership. If another person, say their secretary, had done the same thing, no one would have called it leadership, but the managers followed the scripts of leadership and saw trivial acts as full of impressive influencing activity. The script then said: if managers are doing something (however trivial) in relation to subordinates, it must be leadership. In fact, most of the tasks that make up the day of the average office-dweller are highly scripted. Scripts do the thinking, people rehearse them.

Mindlessly following scripts can have some big advantages. Scripts set staff pulling in the same direction. Script-following can also help make what people do look good to the outside world. But perhaps most importantly, script-following can help staff to conserve their cognitive resources. Going along with the script means you don’t need to think too much. This can save both time and effort.

But mindlessness also comes with some big dangers. Following scripts means that much of your work becomes about ‘going through the motions.’ This can easily go wrong, particularly in large organisations that keep a whole library of scripts. As people observe these, they risk ignoring contextual information, which means that they may become less vigilant. These small oversights can create ideal conditions for big mistakes. Mindless rule-following also impairs authenticity. If a person working in a service job just goes through the motions when talking with customers, the customers often feel the interaction is hollow. This can annoy the customer, but also create a sense of deep dissatisfaction in employees who are forced to spend their days speaking phoney lines. Mindless script-following can also lay the ground for some significant problems in the way that people make decisions. It can mean that decisions are made too quickly, crucial information is ignored, and the wrong lessons are drawn from experience.

Mindless script-following can contribute to getting things done, but it can also create some significant oversights and problems.

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 most frequently cited European researchers in management and organisation studies and is a sought-after speaker around the globe.

André Spicer is a 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.