Andre Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, part of City University London, has co-written a study into the functional stupidity of employees. Mr Spicer, whose research was published in the Journal of Management Studieslast November, says he thinks an element of the trait can be necessary in the workplace.
What is functional stupidity?
Functional stupidity is when otherwise smart people stop using their intelligence at work. When functional stupidity takes hold, intelligent employees stop questioning assumptions, thinking about the broader outcomes and giving reasons for their actions. This often happens because of a wider culture in the organisation or industry. It can lead to both good outcomes in the short term, like decreased conflict and increased efficiency, but also more negative outcomes in the long term, such as dissatisfied employees and disasters.
What was the objective of the study?
I wanted to understand how knowledge works. But what was striking is why people didn't use their knowledge, rationality, critical faculties and how people stopped using their intelligence.
How can senior management implement the study?
The HR function needs to ensure people are given space to exercise these abilities. Some companies, can say that 10 or 20 per cent of employees' time can be used to work on something they find important. Other companies try to understand where their true abilities and faculties lie and match those faculties to the task they have on hand. Second, organisations should try to build a culture to encourage people to use their critical faculties to work.
Why do you think certain sectors have more functional stupidity?
These are businesses more in the economy of persuasion. They are dealing in images and appearances. Such as at consultancies, people deal more in rhetoric, reports and presentations, and if something didn't work, there isn't an immediate feedback mechanism. There's more room for false collective belief.
Your paper says the financial crisis happened because of functional stupidity. But did it not also happen because people were out to make money?
Yes, it happened because some people were out there to make money, what economists call animal spirit. But the interesting thing is that the [push] to make money often leads people to make stupid decisions and overlook the data in front of them.
But you also say functional stupidity can be a positive thing. How is that?
It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand functional stupidity can help maintain the order, because people don't ask too many critical questions, they don't disturb the common assumptions, so there is not much conflict. In individual careers, if you are asking questions, you are seen as a problematic person. But the trade-off is when there is too much functional stupidity, and people start overlooking mistakes.