Book review: The stupidity paradox (Alvesson/Spicer)

Reading Time: 2 minutes

My favourite professor is Mats Alvesson. No one talks about Psychological Safety (without actually mentioning it) with such irony and dry humour as he does. But as a professor he doesn’t have first-hand information except for when he is criticizing his own employer, Lund’s University. His contribution to Psychological Safety history is the phenomenon of Functional Stupidity which makes us just go to work rather than innovating and doubting, also called ‘thinking and working inside the box’. “Functional Stupidity is inability and/or unwillingness to use cognitive and reflective abilities in anything other than narrow and circumspect ways. It involves a lack of reflexivity, a disinclination to require or provide justification, and avoidance of substantive reasoning.”

Alvesson/Spicer identify five root causes of Functional Stupidity:

  1. The common belief is that our leadership has an impact and is needed to execute. Ex: Don’t think anything unless your manager tells you so.
  2. How we focus more on processes and compliance and put trust in our structures rather than caring for the real outcome. Ex: Following the checklist without doubt.
  3. Imitation of other successful organisations instead of creating our own way. Ex: Go all in on a commercial framework instead of doing it your way.
  4. Branding is how you disguise reality in favour of something that sounds better but is hard to verify. Ex: Meaningless jobs have meaningful titles like “impression manager” instead of “hotel receptionist”.
  5. A too strong focus on culture can blind us from being pragmatic and reactive. Ex: If a core value for the company is Trust, you do not doubt those who could be (wrongly?) regarded as an obstacle to trust.

This is a book on my Top-10 list. My takeaway is to always doubt and speak up. Sometimes you should wait a few seconds before announcing your idea. Sometimes I wait a day or two. But very seldom I call my idea right out, enabling only my reptile brain. But I never shut up, Alvesson has inspired me.

This review is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

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