Every summer, thousands of the best and brightest graduates join the workforce. Their much above-average raw intelligence will be carefully crafted for years at the best universities in the world. By graduating from select undergraduate programs and competitive graduate schools, these recruits hope that their jobs will give them ample opportunities to apply their intellectual abilities. But they are in for a nasty surprise.
Smart young people who join the workforce soon find that although they have been chosen for their intelligence, they are not expected to use it. They will be given routine tasks that they will find stupid. If they make a mistake in applying their intelligence, they will be met with painful groans from colleagues and polite warnings from their superiors. After years of experience, they will discover that the people who succeed are the stellar practitioners of corporate recklessness.
One well-known firm that Mats Alvesson and I studied for our book The Paradox of Stupidity (2016) stated that they only hire the best and brightest. When these smart recruits arrived at the office, they were in for some serious intellectual testing. However, they quickly found themselves forced to work long hours on "boring" and "meaningless" chores. After years of boring tasks, they hoped they would move on to more interesting things. But that did not happen. As they moved up the corporate ladder, these ambitious young consultants realized that the most important thing is not a thoughtful decision. Customers were pleased with the impressive PowerPoint demos. Those who insisted on thinking through their clients' problems often found their ideas objectionable. If they continued to use their brains, they were often politely told that the office might not be for them. One recruit with this problem was Jack. After several years of postgraduate study, he became a specialist in corporate governance. Hoping to use his experience to make a difference in the real world, he joined a large consulting firm. He quickly found himself working on a number of projects that had absolutely nothing to do with his experience. Although he introduced himself to clients as a global expert, he knew little more than what he found in a few minutes of searching the company's intranet. He learned that his main task was to make a good impression on the client, and not solve his problems. He knew that if he really tried to use his experience in a meaningful way, his superiors would be unhappy.
For more than a decade, we have studied dozens of organizations, such as this management consulting company, that employ people with high IQs and impressive educations. We've spoken to hundreds of people in engineering firms, government departments, universities, banks, the media, and pharmaceutical companies. We started to think that it was probably the smartest who moved forward. But we found that this is not the case.
Organizations hire smart people but then encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking more deeply is considered a dangerous waste of time. Talented employees quickly learn to use their considerable intellectual abilities only in the most narrow and myopic ways.
Those who learn to turn off their brains will be rewarded. By avoiding overthinking, they can focus on getting things done. Avoiding uncomfortable questions that thinking brings out also allows employees to avoid conflicts with colleagues. By following the corporate line, mindless employees are treated as "leadership material" and promoted. Smart people quickly learn that moving forward means turning off their brains as soon as they enter the office.
We found many ways in which organizations of all kinds positively encouraged smart people not to use their intelligence to the fullest. There were rules and regulations that forced them to focus their efforts on the execution of bureaucratic formalities, and not on doing their job. There were physicians who spent more time "ticking the box" than caring for patients; teachers who spent more time discussing new bureaucratic procedures than teaching children. We met with Hans, the manager of the local government agency: after the visit of the regulator, his office received a list of 25 issues that need improvement. Therefore, the Hans agency developed 25 new policies and procedures. Result: the regulator was pleased, but in practice there were no changes. Such stories have shown us how thoughtlessly following rules and regulations can distract people from actually doing their job. Doctors, teachers, and government officials knew that the rules and regulations they followed all day long were pointless entertainment. However, they chose not to think too much about it. Instead they just kept putting the gal
Another significant source of stupidity in the firms we encountered was a deep belief in leadership. Today, in most organizations, senior executives are not content with being just managers. They want to be leaders. They see their role not only in running their business, but also in transforming their followers. They talk about "vision", "belief" and "authenticity" with great enthusiasm. It all sounds like our office buildings are teeming with future Nelson Mandels. However, if you take a closer look at what these self-proclaimed leaders are doing, things are different.
George considered himself a very "open" manager. The staff told us that he brought breakfast in the morning and the annual beer tasting.
No matter how hard you search, leadership is almost impossible to find. What most leaders actually spend their days doing is sitting in meetings, filling out forms, and exchanging information. In other words, they are bureaucrats. But being a bureaucrat is not particularly interesting. It also doesn't look good on your business card. To make their roles seem more important and interesting than they really are, corporate leaders become dependent on leadership. They read books about leadership. They have lengthy conversations with yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly, they attend a lot of courses, seminars and meetings with "leadership" somewhere in the title. The content of many of these leadership development courses would be appropriate in a kindergarten or New Age community.
In the United States alone, at least $14 billion is spent annually on leadership development, but according to researchers such as Stanford's Jeffrey Pfeffer, this has little to no effect on leadership development. In our own research, we found that most people in knowledge-intensive firms don't need much leadership. The people working at the coal faces were motivated and often knew their job much better than their bosses. Bosses' clumsy attempts to be leaders were often seen as a pointless distraction from the real work. George, a manager at a high-tech engineering firm, told us that he considers himself very "open." When we asked his staff what he really does, they told us that he cooks breakfast in the morning and hosts the annual beer tasting.
Another particularly rich source of goofiness in organizations is a deep belief in the power of brands. Many organizations seem to believe that simply changing the sign can change the entire company. Unfortunately, this is almost always wishful thinking on the part of upper management. We've seen costly rebranding initiatives that included changing the organization's logo but nothing more. The University of Western Sydney has spent millions to transform itself, becoming the "University of Western Sydney". The Australian Opera also underwent a costly rebranding process to become "Opera Australia". The National Bank of Australia hoped to reinvent itself by becoming the "National Bank of Australia".
Often, this branding craze can be nothing more than a distraction. At one company we studied, we met a group of marketing managers whose job was to sell a range of products, including toothpaste. Naturally, they were in awe of the magical power of branding. One executive told us that "you live and die" because of your brand. But when we asked them more about what really matters in selling toothpaste, we were told that consumers would “just pick whatever is on sale on the shelf” and that “people aren’t really interested in toothpaste.” . All that mattered, they admitted, was the price.
In many organizations, the branding craze can become a dangerous distraction. A few years ago, the highest ranks of the Swedish armed forces decided to carry out a large-scale rebranding. Unfortunately, this meant that they had to cancel some military exercises. When the rebranding initiative was introduced, the commander said, “To make an omelette, you have to break eggs. It's understandable that some will find it difficult, but it's going to be a damn tasty omelette." After millions were spent replacing everything from signage to tableware, a senior military official admitted the rebranding initiative was a mistake. It was quietly dropped, but not after arousing considerable discontent.
We found another particularly tragic rebranding of British Airways in the late 1990s. After strategic changes, senior management decided to make the company more global. To do this, they renamed British Airways "the world's favorite airline" and replaced the Union Flag on their aircraft's tails with "world art" designs. This change caused a wide public outcry: even former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher joined the fray, covering a model aircraft with a new design with her handkerchief. For just a few
In just a few weeks, the airline returned to its old livery. While little has changed, millions have been spent in the process.
Another important factor in the stupidity of many firms is the desire to imitate other organizations. As Jan Wallander, former chairman of Sweden's Handelsbanken, said: "Business leaders are as fashion-conscious as teenage girls who choose jeans." Many companies are adopting the latest management fads, no matter how inappropriate they may be. If Google is doing this, then that's a good enough reason to implement almost any practice, from mindfulness to big data analytics.
But there are often very weak reasons for following "best industry practice". For example, when the Swedish Armed Forces decided to start using TQM practices, some officers naturally asked, "Why?" Answer: "Presumably this is what we benefit from, since this is what they do in the private sector." In other words, we must do it because others are doing it.
But the implementation of “best practices” often brings little to no results. One study of oil and gas companies found that they would implement diversity programs that had little effect on increasing people's tolerance. One employee commented, “This is a really good exercise. You know, we can all feel good that we - this happy multicolored family - will bring in so much money for the firm. The truth is quite another matter.
Sometimes following industry best practices can lead to worse results. An example of this is companies that constantly increase the salary of their CEOs. One analysis suggested that US companies would pay above average salaries for new high-profile positions in the hope of attracting above average candidates. But, ultimately, high wages did not affect the efficiency of the firm. All he did was increase the amount that companies across the economy were willing to spend on senior executives.
Managers spent their days trying to take responsibility for projects that were considered successful and shirk responsibility for failures.
The last source of corporate stupidity we encountered was corporate culture. Often, these cultures limit employees to a narrow view of the world, such as a general obsession with constant change. One high-tech company we studied was very enthusiastic about change and launched new change initiatives every few years, often with little to no real results. The program will be launched with great fanfare, but nothing much happened next. Everyone seemed to think that someone else was responsible for creating the change. And when it became clear that nothing significant was changing, top managers abandoned the initiative and moved on to the next trendy change program without learning anything.
Many corporations create an unwavering focus on the present. In "Moral Labyrinths" (2009), a study of the culture of a large American corporation, Robert Jackall found that managers often say things like: "Our horizon is today's lunch" or "I know what you did for me yesterday, but what have you done for me lately? This extremely short time horizon meant that managers spent their days trying to take responsibility for projects that were thought to be successful and shirk responsibility for failures.
A culture of deadpan positivity is also popular in many companies. At the IT consulting company we studied, employees were constantly told, "Don't bring us problems, only bring us solutions." This upbeat message was aimed at creating a happy workplace. But one consultant who knew the firm well was not so sure. When we asked him to describe the company, he told us, "It's not a company, it's a religion." Employees' sincere belief in being positive at all times meant that when real problems arose with no obvious solution, they were ignored. When the economy went through a big downturn, the company's optimism prevented employees from making the necessary changes until it was too late.
At the very beginning of our research, we suspected that organizational life would be full of nonsense. But we were genuinely surprised that smart people go along with collective stupidity and get rewarded for it. Thoughtlessly following rules and regulations—even if they were downright counterproductive—meant that professionals would be left alone. Using empty talk about leadership can lead to ambitious people being promoted to positions of responsibility. Copying other well-known organizations meant that the firm could be considered "world class". The launch of branding initiatives meant that executives could focus on more
her simple job of manipulating superficial images and avoiding the much more confusing realities of organizational life.
While there are great benefits to corporate mindlessness, we have also noticed that it can be very costly. When smart people stopped fully using their intellect, they often did not notice mistakes. It usually doesn't matter: companies can be large organizations that offer plenty of places to hide bugs. Moreover, people in corporations have short attention spans. The perpetrators of blunders are likely to move forward (often upwards) before their mistakes become apparent. “Always try to run from your mistakes” was the key career advice of one middle manager.
However, there are times when it is impossible to hide the rotten fruits of collective stupidity. That's what happened in Nokia. Between 2007 and 2013, telecom executives were urged to be relentlessly positive. One middle manager described how "if you were too negative, it would be your head on the chopping block." As a result, employees only wanted to communicate "good news" to senior managers rather than "test by practice." The naysayers found their divisions under-resourced, while the optimistic corporate give-aways were given even more responsibility. When the real problem arose with Nokia's new smartphones designed to compete with Apple's iPhone, few dared to speak up. This meant that it took more than a year for top management to realize they were losing. By that time, Apple and Samsung were already on their way to dominating the smartphone market.
This cautionary tale reminds us that while stupid behavior can bring some significant short-term benefits, such as popularity and promotion, it also comes with long-term risks. This suggests that the dose of stupidity at work is like most things: good in moderation.
Playing dumb at work is a subtle art. If you don't, people will suspect that you are faking it. If you overdo it, they will start to think that you are a burden. However, there are some tactics experienced practitioners of corporate silliness use to get it right.
One of the most common tactics is to do what everyone else is doing, even if it's wrong. If your competitor introduces a new strategy, do the same, no matter how misguided it may be. If another competitor comes up with a TQM initiative, follow suit. It's often a good idea to copy established companies like Google, even if you're in a completely different industry. If you call it "best practice" you might be called a genius. When something goes wrong, you can say, "Well, everyone got it wrong."
In a world dominated by stupidity, 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. They know that the decision maker only sees the PowerPoint presentation and only reads the summary (if they're lucky). They also understand that the dumbest ideas are usually accepted if they are well presented. Decision makers are likely to have forgotten most of the content by the time they walk out the door. And when something goes wrong, they can say, "They didn't read the fine print."
Negotiating corporate stupidity also requires the assumption that the boss knows best. It means doing what your boss wants, no matter how idiotic he is. More importantly, you must do what your boss's boss wants. You will look loyal and it will save you time defending your position. When something goes wrong, you can blame your boss.
Working for a dumb firm often means blinding others with bullshit. A very effective way to do nothing real is to rely on a flurry of managerial jargon. Develop strategies, create business models, participate in thought leadership. This will save you from having to do any real work. It will also make you seem like you are on the cutting edge. When something goes wrong, you can blame the trendy managerial idea.
Take the glory that comes from success and move forward before you are burdened with any costs. So someone else is left to clean up the mess
It is also desirable to be overly opportunistic. Most people can easily fool themselves into believing anything if it benefits them. When people are paid enough, they believe almost anything. So if you're justifying your commitment to a stupid course of action, just make sure everyone knows you're only doing it for the money. That way, when something goes wrong, you can blame the incentive system.
anyone who practices corporate stupidity, don't stop. It's important not to get caught up in your own mistakes. Take the glory that comes from short-term success and move forward before you get saddled with any long-term costs. That way, when something goes wrong, someone else is left to clean up the mess.
For the past two decades, management theorists have been convinced that organizations succeed or fail based on their expertise. However, our closer look at the corporate world showed a very different picture: many large corporations seemed to be captured by stupidity. Moreover, this stupidity is not just the accidental result of a few corporate buffoons. Often it is created intentionally. This is much more than taking advantage of the various built-in cognitive biases that behavioral economists are so obsessed with. Rather, it involved organizations purposefully creating a kind of collective brainlessness.
We have seen firms go out of their way to prevent employees from reflecting on their assumptions, discourage them from reflecting on their essential goals, and prevent them from giving or asking for justifications for their decisions and actions. By doing this, organizations often create functional outcomes both for individuals (eg, career advancement) and for the entire organization (eg, the ability to avoid conflict and focus on common goals). While these favorable outcomes dominate in the short term, collective stupidity can cause dysfunction in the long term, including lack of learning and immunity to error. Perhaps management thinkers should stop clinging to knowledge-based theories of organization and start developing a theory of organization management based on stupidity.