Is stupidity a good idea? ­ Blog ­ ISAA

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Is stupidity a good idea?

Some years ago I was at an organisational meeting and a senior manager advised the employees in relation to their work and motivation: ‘only the perception matters'. I took him to mean that rather than actually meeting the presumed objectives of the organisation, it would be satisfactory, and even more important, to create a perception by external observers (for example customers, clients or funding agencies) that the organisation was meeting its objectives – reality was to be no more than the perception that objectives were being met, as distinct from them actually being met.  

The relationship between perception and reality in a management context is one theme in the book by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer:  ‘The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work' (Profile Books, 2016). The discussion is about government and business organisations, but especially the latter. The authors argue that organisations are riddled with behaviours and procedures that rationally can only be regarded as stupid – the paradox is that up to a point stupidity is functional, in that it can enable people to work together and provide employees with a feeling that their work is worthwhile. But functional stupidity comes at a cost of rewarding conformity, suppressing opinions, and discouraging independent thought.  
‘The Stupidity Paradox' was mentioned in the press last year as being on the Christmas reading list of the current Prime Minister. If the PM got around to reading it, it must have raised some alarm bells as he pondered the book's conclusions about the abundance of confusion, inept language, and waste in organisational management. Could the reduction of stupidity in business ever come to be seen as part of the government's drive for greater national productivity?  The need that organisations feel to constantly ‘sell' themselves means that the unrelenting positive face they present to the outside world will inevitably permeate the organisations themselves, thus inducing stupidity and a consequent incapacity to explain and implement decisions, and consider wider effects of policy. Unfortunately, rhetoric is easier to achieve than achievement itself. 

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