'Functional stupidity': Is it smart to play dumb on the job?

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2013 - 7:36 PM

Intelligent people are saying “functional stupidity” makes the workplace more efficient. But other smart people say that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

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“How stupid are you?” is still considered an insult, but if a pair of Swedish professors are correct, it soon might become one of the more important questions on a job application. The recommended answer will be: “How stupid do you want me to be?”

This might sound dumb — and critics are quick to say it is — but the Swedes argue that stupidity can increase office efficiency.

Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, professors of organization studies at Lund University, proposed in the Journal of Management Studies that companies with too many smart people risk having their workflow disrupted by workers who overanalyze everything and make repeated suggestions for alternatives.

The best team players, they concluded, are people who carry out their work without constantly questioning the processes or their bosses. They labeled this trait “functional stupidity.”

The article made some workplace experts cringe.

“These are people who can be described as being retired on the job,” said Pat Staaden, CEO of Trusight, a Plymouth-based firm that consults with about 1,000 companies in Minnesota. “We talk much more about engaging the employees.”

The profs said that functional stupidity is not necessarily a factor of IQ. It can be a result of office politics, a byproduct of a workforce that has lost its motivation or a fear of reprisal for speaking up.

That part of their theory struck a chord with Chad Brinsfield, a professor in the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. While “I’ve never seen a company that had a problem with too many smart people,” he said, he has encountered ones where executives encourage the employees to play dumb, often without realizing they’re doing so,

“There are subtle pressures exerted in organizations to go along with the flow — go along to get along — and if you speak up against something or don’t go along with the leaders’ thinking, they say things like, ‘You’re not a good fit’ or, ‘We have intellectual differences,’ ” he said.

“I think that happens outside of conscious awareness most of the time,” he said. “Most leaders aren’t going to say, ‘I want to be surrounded by yes men.’ They’ll say, ‘I want people around me who will challenge me.’ That’s what they say. But subtly, they exert pressures on people to do just the opposite.”

Keeping your mouth shut

Brinsfield has been doing his own research on why employees refuse to speak up, even on crucial issues such as improving a product or boosting profits. A recently published report capsulizing four studies he’s done on “employee silence” identifies 56 reasons why people opt to keep their thoughts to themselves.

“That contributes to functional stupidity,” he said. “Oftentimes people have an idea for improving an organization, but they won’t speak up about it.”

The “my way or the highway” school of management is fading from corporate offices, said Lisa Stock, senior organizational development and human resources professional at Trusight.

“The last eight to 10 years, more and more attention has been paid to employment engagement as opposed to the top-down management structure,” she said.

There’s still a ways to go. According to statistics gathered by Trusight’s parent company, MRA, only 31 percent of employees are comfortable expressing their opinions to their bosses. The good news is that recent surveys have found that an equal number are willing to speak their minds, “and that number’s likely to keep going up,” Stock said.

Companies are realizing that getting employees more involved “is important in terms of being able to attract desirable people to your workforce, and it’s important in retaining them,” Staaden said.

How dumb is too dumb?

There are some occupations that depend on independent thinking, and the more independent the better. Advertising is one of them, said Lynn Franz, director of strategic planning for Campbell Mithun.

“I think functional stupidity is an interesting premise in a risk-avoidance world that tends to overthink everything,” she said, before adding with a laugh: “But it wouldn’t work very well in our business.”

Nonetheless, the Swedish professors, who called their report “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations,” are convinced that stupidity has its place in the corporate world.

“We have shown that stupidity should not be rooted out of the organization completely,” they wrote. “It can be an important resource that organizations should cultivate, maintain and engineer.”

They did add a caveat: Functional stupidity can be disastrous when carried to extremes. As an example, they cite the banking crisis, after which many analysts said they knew that their companies were making risky investments but didn’t say anything.

This creates a conundrum of its own. If you see stupidity getting out of hand and raise the issue with your bosses (and thus disrupting workflow), aren’t you doing exactly what the premise behind functional stupidity says is counterproductive?

Well, duh.

 

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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