Why do smart people do stupid things at work?

Ostrich heads

 Stupidity in the workplace is not down to individual intellectual deficit; rather the company, actively nurtures stupidity, according to one of the world’s leading management academics. 

Speaking at a seminar in the Faculty  recently Professor Andre Spicer outlined the inherent stupidity in many organisations.

“Many organizations are dominated by functional stupidity. This is a situation where people do not think about the ultimate ends of their action and only focus on the means, avoid asking for and giving justifications of their decisions, and do not reflexively question their own and others assumptions” stated Professor Andre Spicer a globally renowned scholar in the field of organisational behaviour.

Professor Spicer was a guest of the Department of Management and Marketing in the Faculty and he stated, “we typically assume people do stupid things at work because they have a low IQ. However this is not always the case.”

Research by Professor Spicer has found stupidity in the workplace is not down to individual intellectual deficit. In many cases, stupidity is actively nurtured by the company. And what is more, this can actually be good for short-term performance. People switching off their intellect can mean they avoid asking difficulty questions and just get on with the job. But in the long term, this can lay the foundations for serious problems.

“This can be functional insofar as it creates collective belief and enthusiasm in a course of action. But it can be dysfunctional in the longer term as it can lay the seeds of a crisis.”

“Knowledge inventive organisations often hire smart people, and then cajole them not to use their intelligence at work. Sometimes this happens through direct stand-over tactics. But most of the time this happens through more subtle social pressure. Smart people quickly learn that it does not pay to speak out and start self-censoring.”

This can have some beneficial consequences in the short term – individuals are able to make progress in their career and the organisation as a whole is not dominated by criticism and the infighting this can produce. But this can backfire in the longer term. A lack of critical thinking can mean organisations overlook many of the crucial details which can build up to large scale crises or disasters.

“Many cases of functional stupidity have come to light in recent years. In the lead up to the global financial crisis, people working in finance actively ignored evidence that the financial products they were trading were unsustainable. Overlooking these problems in the short-term mean traders were able to build enthusiasm and confidence,” outlined Professor Spicer.

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