Smarter organisations

fighting the reflection deficit

How can we make it easier for organisations to get the most value out of the work and efforts they put in? How do we safeguard innovation and listen to the voices of non-conformists? The concept of functional stupidity is used to describe the phenomenon that permeates many workplaces today.

Illustration of human evolution. Photo:

Contrary to how it soundsfunctional stupidity requires a certain intelligence – it is about trying to satisfy organisational targets rather than doing something to make the world better in the end. Adapting to the established culture and not making mistakes can become a driving force that overshadows the quest to reach beyond the obvious and sometimes trivial.

Utilise newcomers, outsiders and critics

“Every wise organisation should utilise employees whose eyes are open and who have alternative perspectives, as well as newcomers, outsiders and critics,” says Mats Alvesson, professor of organisation and leadership, and among the most cited organisation researchers in the world.

“Unfortunately, organisations are often permeated by a reflection deficit. Critical questions are seen as uncomfortable. Instead, we assume a position of compliance where we try not to give anyone a reason to complain. We may then end up in a situation where everyone does the right thing, a positive spirit prevails and everything seems good, but in fact functions poorly,” says Mats Alvesson.

Read more: “Leadership is overestimated; rely more on employees”

Functional stupidity can be catastrophic

When Mats Alvesson and his co-author André Spicer introduced the concept in a scientific article and following book, The Stupidity Paradox; The power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work, it was widely recognised at workplaces and received a lot of attention in international media. The concept was picked up by Le Monde, Financial Times and Business Week among other media outlets, and became officially recognised as a new word in the Swedish language (in Swedish: Funktionell dumhet).

“The consequences of functional stupidity can be catastrophic to a business from a long-term perspective,” Mats Alvesson concludes .

Mats Alvesson has together with fellow researchers Roland Paulsen and Yiannis Gabriel also studied how academia can ensure that the publication of research truly helps create meaning and seek solutions to the issues facing society – rather than maintaining a culture where research is sufficient in itself.

Trust and understanding essential for organisational change efforts

Different views and values within an organisation can complicate collaborations with other organisations – and within the organisations themselves. However, leaders who are prepared for this may be more successful in navigating their way through the storm unscathed. This is discussed in an article by researcher Anna Brattström in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal. Together with Dries Faems from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, she writes about the importance of managers understanding that their employees do not always share the same values as they do, or as the management.

“For an individual, a new collaboration with an external organisation may mean that something they are an expert in is no longer needed. In this case, the individual will hardly share the same position on the collaboration as, for example, the management. Therefore, it is important for leaders to be aware of the personal consequences that a change may entail. Employees who feel under threat may drive a process in an undesired direction for the company,” says Anna Brattström.

In other words: even informal power can have significant consequences, particularly for an organisation that is unaware of the fact that it works like this.

Read more: Distrust and hope characterise innovation collaborations