Darcy Moore

The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work

By Mats Alvesson and André SpicerAllen & Unwin, 2016

“Our thesis in this book is that many organisations are caught in the stupidity paradox: they employ smart people who end up doing stupid things. This can produce good results in the short term but can pave the way to disaster in the longer term.”

A friend and teacher-colleague sent me a link to an episode of Best Practice on Radio National — a program that “brings you the big ideas in workplace culture, leadership, innovation and trends” — featuring an interview with one of the authors of The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work. The guest, with a few pithy comments, illuminated what many of us have known through long experience in our workplaces — that we are badly in need of some honest, critical thinking.

André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University London, really nailed this in the interview and would have undoubtedly improved sales of his book, written with co-author Mats Alvesson, Professor of Business Administration at Lund University.

The following quotes will give you good insight into the content and focus of the book:

“There are many whose sole job it is to create plans, rules and procedures, and even more who spend their working life ensuring that these are followed. Other employees find that ever-larger chunks of their days are taken up with following rules and procedures.”

“Many bureaucracies are characterised by obsessive and often irrational rule-following. In these kinds of cultures, openness, freedom or creativity is viewed as a sign of disorder.”

The authors suggest that the “McDonaldisation” of Western society is complete and there’s not much room for critical thinking in a paradigm resulting in conformist, organisational thinking by politicians and bureaucrats who parrot the importance of data-driven decisions without making them. The authors suggest that “less time and resources” are allocated to teaching and learning and “more to image-polishing exercises” as “schools become machines for persuading others that children are getting a good education, rather than institutions for educating children”.

The most damning commentary of the entire book suggests that “Instead of focusing on the actual work process, schools spend most of their time on ceremonial activities. They develop plans, set up meetings, write reports, develop policy statements, prepare presentations and all the other things a ‘proper’ school is supposed to do”. The years roll by without any logical reconsideration of how all this actually helps educate children or improve the society it serves.

Most readers will alternate between despair and mild amusement while reading The Stupidity Paradox. The authors, with tongues firmly in cheeks, can see that functional stupidity has some handy advantages: “it helps individuals to manage their own doubts, be happy, feel comfortable with ambiguity, get along with their colleagues and superiors, present themselves as positive and upbeat, be more productive and ultimately make a fairly steady climb up the corporate hierarchy.” What else could one want from a day at work?

One of the recurring themes in the book is that the successful managers who rose through the ranks were those who avoided the big questions. They were “smart” enough to know that those questions came with the “risk of career suicide”.

Luckily enough the third and final part to the book offers guidance on how to “manage stupidity”. The ideas are very traditional, suggesting that organisations should actually engage in reflection, encourage and respond to critical thinking rather than sidelining those who point out that what is on the PowerPoint slide or listed in the bullet-point framework is not the main game or likely to make any difference to the organisation’s stated goals. The concept of a pre-mortem, to discuss what may go pear-shaped, is a good one. The authors even suggest wide reading and discussion rather than narrowly focused managerialism would help an organisation to flourish. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Educational leaders will find this exploration of the practices and pitfalls of management in large organisations a rewarding and insightful read. Highly recommended.

Darcy Moore teaches at Dapto HS and blogs at