How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door.
Each summer, thousands of the best and brightest graduates join the workforce. Their well-above-average raw intelligence will have been carefully crafted through years at the world’s best universities. After emerging from their selective undergraduate programmes and competitive graduate schools, these new recruits hope that their jobs will give them ample opportunity to put their intellectual gifts to work. But they are in for an unpleasant surprise.
Smart young things joining the workforce soon discover that, although they have been selected for their intelligence, they are not expected to use it. They will be assigned routine tasks that they will consider stupid. If they happen to make the mistake of actually using their intelligence, they will be met with pained groans from colleagues and polite warnings from their bosses. After a few years of experience, they will find that the people who get ahead are the stellar practitioners of corporate mindlessness.
One well-known firm that Mats Alvesson and I studied for our book The Stupidity Paradox (2016) said it employed only the best and the brightest. When these smart new recruits arrived in the office, they expected great intellectual challenges. However, they quickly found themselves working long hours on ‘boring’ and ‘pointless’ routine work.
After a few years of dull tasks, they hoped that they’d move on to more interesting things. But this did not happen. As they rose through the ranks, these ambitious young consultants realised that what was most important was not coming up with a well-thought-through solution. It was keeping clients happy with impressive PowerPoint shows.
Those who did insist on carefully thinking through their client’s problems often found their ideas unwelcome. If they persisted in using their brains, they were often politely told that the office might not be the place for them.
One new recruit who faced this problem was Jack. After years at graduate school, he was a specialist in corporate governance. Hoping to use his expertise to make a difference in the real world, he joined a large consulting firm. He quickly found that he was working on a range of projects that had absolutely nothing to do with his expertise.
Even though he presented to clients as a global expert, he knew little more than what he found in a few minutes searching the company intranet. He learned that his main job was to make a good impression with the client, not to solve their problems. He knew that, if he actually tried to use his expertise in a meaningful way, his superiors would not be happy.
For more than a decade, we’ve been studying dozens of organisations such as this management consultancy, employing people with high IQs and impressive educations. We have spoken with hundreds of people working for engineering firms, government departments, universities, banks, the media and pharmaceutical companies. We started out thinking it is likely to be the smartest who got ahead. But we discovered this wasn’t the case.
Organisations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways.
Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. By avoiding thinking too much, they are able to focus on getting things done. Escaping the kind of uncomfortable questions that thinking brings to light also allows employees to side-step conflict with co-workers. By toeing the corporate line, thoughtless employees get seen as ‘leadership material’ and promoted. Smart people quickly learn that getting ahead means switching off their brains as soon as they step into the office.
We found many ways that all kinds of organisations positively encouraged intelligent people not to fully use their intelligence. There were rules and routines that prompted them to focus energies on complying with bureaucracy instead of doing their jobs. There were doctors who spent more time ‘playing the tick-box game’ than actually caring for patients; teachers who spent more time negotiating new bureaucratic procedures than teaching children.
We met Hans, a manager in a local government agency: after a visit from a regulator, his office received a list of 25 issues in need of improvement. So Hans’s agency developed 25 new policies and procedures. The result: the regulator was happy, but there was no change in actual practice. Such stories showed us how mindless compliance with rules and regulations can detract people from actually doing their jobs.
The doctors, teachers and government officials all knew that the rules and regulations they spent their days complying with were pointless diversions. However, they chose not to think about this too much. Instead, they just got on with ticking the boxes.
Another significant source of stupidity in firms we came across was a deep faith in leadership. In most organisations today, senior executives are not content with just being managers. They want to be leaders. They see their role as not just running their business but also transforming their followers.
They talk about ‘vision’, ‘belief’ and ‘authenticity’ with great verve. All this sounds like our office buildings are brimming with would-be Nelson Mandelas. However, when you take a closer look at what these self-declared leaders spend their days doing, the story is quite different.
George saw himself as a very ‘open’ manager. Staff told us he provided breakfast in the morning and an annual beer-tasting
No matter how hard you search there is little – if any – leadership to be found. What most executives actually spend their days doing is sitting in meetings, filling in forms and communicating information. In other words, they are bureaucrats. But being a bureaucrat is not particularly exciting. It also doesn’t look very good on your business card.
To make their roles seem more important and exciting than they actually are, corporate executives become leadership addicts. They read leadership books. They give lengthy talks to yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly they attend many courses, seminars and meetings with ‘leadership’ somewhere in the title.
The content of many of these leadership-development courses would not be out of place in a kindergarten or a New Age commune. There are leadership-development courses where participants are asked to lead a horse around a yard, use colouring-in books, or build Lego – all in the name of developing them as leaders.
At least $14 billion gets spent every year on leadership development in the US alone yet, according to researchers such as Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford, it has virtually no impact on improving the quality of leaders. In our own research, we found that most employees in knowledge-intensive firms didn’t need much leadership.
People working at the coalface were self-motivated and often knew their jobs much better than their bosses did. Their superiors’ cack-handed attempts to be leaders were often seen as a pointless distraction from the real work. George, a manager in a high-tech engineering firm, told us he saw himself as a very ‘open’. When we asked his subordinates what he actually did, they told us that he provides breakfast in the morning and runs an annual beer-tasting.
Another particularly rich source of stupidity in organisations is the deep belief in the power of brands. Many organisations seem to assume that, just by changing the signage, it’s possible to transform the entire company. Sadly, this is almost always wishful thinking on the part of senior executives. We saw costly rebranding initiatives that involved changing the logo of an organisation, but little else. The University of Western Sydney spent millions to transform itself by becoming ‘Western Sydney University’. The Australian Opera also underwent a costly rebranding process to become ‘Opera Australia’. National Bank of Australia hoped to overhaul itself by becoming ‘National Australia Bank’.
Often, this fascination with branding can be little more than a distraction. In one company we studied, we met a group of marketing executives whose job it was to sell a range of products including toothpaste. Naturally, they were very enthusiastic about the magical power of branding. One executive told us ‘you live and die’ by your brand. But when we asked them more about what actually mattered in selling toothpaste, we were told that consumers will ‘just pick anything on a shelf that’s on promotion’ and that ‘people aren’t really interested in toothpaste’. All that counted, they admitted, was the price.