Professor Mats Alvesson is a Swedish author and management scholar. On Thursday he’s appearing at the University of Queensland's business school to present a free seminar: The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work.
The talk is named after The Stupidity Paradox, a book Alvesson co-authored with André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at City, University of London. It’s made waves in the management world and was on Malcolm Turnbull’s personal reading list at the end of last year.
Broadsheet: What’s this book all about?
Mats Alvesson: It’s about the phenomena of “functional stupidity”, which means that people are often rewarded and have an easier life if they don’t think too much. They constrain their mind-sets and they use their brains in quite narrow ways – focusing on means and not reflecting about, “What’s the purpose of all this, what’s the broader context?”
BS: In the book you mention a way to combat functional stupidity called “anti-stupidity management”. What does this involve?
MA: Most organisations, particularly large ones, are full of practices, policies and routines that are quite counter-productive. People have an easier time if they just adapt to [these policies] and don’t rub the surface, so they continue to produce a lot of things that are quite mindless in many places.
The problem is, people are not so inclined to speak up about this. They’re used to it and often you step on somebody’s toes if you ask, “What’s the purpose of this?” So most organisations need anti-stupidity management; [they need to] have practices or seminars, encourage people to take on positions as anti-stupidity managers which means that they ask the questions; what’s the purpose of this? Shouldn’t we stop doing this? Shouldn’t we question a lot of the buzzwords and the fashion following and the naïve belief in leaders fixing everything? There’s an enormous amount of time and energy that could be saved.
BS: How did you become an expert on this subject?
MA: We [Alvesson and Spicer] study organisations at close range, and we encounter an enormous amount of fluffy thinking, naïve hopes and people accepting a lot of stupid arrangements. Or if they don’t accept them, they become a bit sceptical but don’t dare speak up or encourage more reflection and thoughtfulness in organisations. We have a lot of in-depth research pointing at this phenomenon.
BS: What will you be covering in your talk at the University of Queensland?
MA: I will go through the phenomena of functional stupidity, its nature, its origin, why this is extremely common, and then we will address some ways of dealing with it. The point of functional stupidity is that it is to some extent good – it is functional. So it’s not only bad. It’s a key element of contemporary organisations, but sometimes there’s too much of it. So we will be covering ways of reducing functional stupidity.
BS: You mentioned that stupidity can be of benefit in a workplace. What interests you about the idea of using people’s stupidity?
MA: The positive thing is that it makes life easier. You have organisations where people are disciplined, they’re mainstream, they’re thinking in similar ways. So it makes some people happier and they can sleep well during the night. Socialising is easier because people tend to adapt and agree. So it’s necessary, but sometimes you have the problem that a lot of time is wasted. Companies run into problems because it’s so easy to just adapt and follow the flow, but it’s not necessarily particularly productive.
Mats Alvesson will be speaking from 5.15pm to 7.30pm on March 16 at UQ Business School Executive Venue, Level 19, 345 Queen Street, Brisbane. Entry is free, but you’ll need to register a place.