My recent reading has been The Stupidity Paradox by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer. It’s one of those books that I think anyone in an organisation, and certainly anyone running one should read. It’s also one of those books which, while not solely about education, will I suspect have many who work in schools nodding with recognition at almost every page.
The subject under scrutiny is what the authors call ‘functional stupidity’, in other words the kind of idiocy of the herd mentality or blindly-followed protocol that causes otherwise intelligent, skilled people to do very dumb things in certain situations. The authors are academics and the book is carefully balanced, demonstrating for example how encouraging people to overcome their misgivings can bring short-term benefits to an organisation. But the bigger premise is that this same behaviour can also cause longer-term problems if it prevents people from identifying the reality of situation, and particularly problems as they develop.
I think the book is useful because it calmly but mercilessly illuminates all kinds of stupidity that passes for good practice in all sorts of institutional settings, and while it perhaps focuses on managerial decisions, it also shows us that no one is immune: this is simply a cognitive failure of human beings when put in certain situations. In this sense, one might feel sympathy for those whose decisions, by dint of their seniority, have larger than average impacts, but it also presses the point that seniority ought to bring about a greater than average determination to avoid such pitfalls.
I wonder how many school managers have come across the idea of functional stupidity, let alone take it seriously. I think they should. If nothing else, it should warn of the dangers of micromanagement, and the antidote lies partly in empowering people to make their own decisions, while keeping coded behaviours to a minimum.
I will end by giving a few examples of the issues the book addresses, and strongly recommend it.
The Knowledge Myth: We now live in a knowledge economy where intellectual power is all. This justifies giving people trumped-up job titles to reflect the fact – but also to ‘help’ them to believe that what they are doing is really smart. In fact, much work has been dumbed-down and is at least as mundane and repetitive as ever. The eventual realisation of this fact causes disappointment and disillusion.
Functional Stupidity. The idea that clever people, put in constrinaing situations, can behave stupidly. For example, the stipulation of institutional procedures can lead to blind adherence, even where there is a clear flaw in doing so. The outcomes can sometimes be disastrous.
Mindlessness. The establishment of routine in the workplace can lead to people following ‘social scripts’ which are so routine they are automatic. It can result in people ‘talking past’ each other, and conforming to role rather than thinking about what they are saying or doing.
Normality. A variation on the above. People accept that sometimes even bizarre routines and practices are normal simply because they are habitual within the organisation. They may appear deeply weird when seen from the outside.
Normality -2. People are deeply unwilling to stand out from the herd in organisations because doing so risks social isolation and possibly career suicide.
Leadership-induced stupidity. The creation of specific cultures or mindsets within an institution often comes from the top. They may bring a useful sense of cohesion and purpose – but they often inhibit wider thinking, particularly when there is a risk of upsetting the boss.
System-induced stupidity. There is a tendency to think that if systems are in place, then they must be working. Box-ticking becomes more important than actual functioning. The risk is the emergence of the ‘audit society’ in which it checking that things are being done becomes more important than actually doing them (well).
Culture-induced stupidity. Where an organisation cultivates a particular culture, this can again help cohesion. But, for example an organisation that is implacably positive, where negative thinking is not permitted, may find it very difficult to address real problems that crop up simply because it is not done to contemplate them publicly.
There is plenty more fertile reading, but I hope this whets the appetite.