Rated: Grandiosity, and functional stupidity

Mats Alvesson cautions against the seductive tendency to gild the lily; and argues that we may have underestimated the value of ‘functional stupidity’.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts – Bertrand Russell

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost - Gustave Flaubert

We live in a society full of upbeat claims and ego boosts. And that can be just fine… who doesn’t like to hear positive messages about how great they are? However, this also means that ‘grandiosity’ is flourishing. You, the organisation you work for, the group you belong to, what you do, how you consume… all are given a positive, status-enhancing polish. But it’s a superficial sheen. It’s seductive, promising to fulfil our needs, to give us the good life. Yet there is a strong downside, and to my eyes grandiosity is seriously overrated.

Grandiosity involves representing or loading phenomena in a way that makes them appear to be as attractive and extraordinary as possible, without being perceived as obviously fake. Issues of substance (practices or tangible results, knowledge, everyday life) are marginalised. We’re not talking about delusions of grandeur here, or something that is obviously mad. My interest lies in ‘normal grandiosity’: an exaggeration of normal phenomena to imbue them with strongly positive, exaggerated meaning that generates attractiveness, success and distance from the paltriness and mediocrity of everyday life.

Grandiosity used to be mainly for the elite, but with economic and technological progress it has been democratised. Everybody wants to gild the lily, to use a smoke screen, to goldplate their lives. People feel entitled to it. We want to be in the public eye, confirmed, associated with something prestigious, and to distance ourselves from what is trivial. It’s part and parcel of an increasingly narcissistic, self-esteem-driven world.

The desire to shine is not just an individual phenomenon. Various institutions and groups acquire labels to boost their meaning, sophistication and status. Let me give some examples.

Many Western countries have rapidly moved from being dominated by the industry and service sectors to becoming ‘information societies’ (during the 1970s) and then ‘knowledge economies’ driven by ‘the creative class’ and innovation. In these dynamic times, it’s essential to keep up with things. In education, the number of higher degrees has exploded in order to keep up with the (pretence of a) sophisticated nature of contemporary working life. In many countries, half of a population is expected to take a university degree, but is this truly bearing fruit in terms of ability and knowledge? In their 2011 book Academically Adrift sociologists Richard Arum and Josika Roksa point to US research showing that 40 per cent of all graduates do not improve cognitively across their academic studies, according to tests of generic intellectual skills conducted when students started and finished their education.

In working life, there is much rhetoric around bureaucracy and mass production making way for so-called knowledge-intensive companies, dynamic networks and flexible, customer-steered operations. People are employed for ‘value creation processes’ rather than for the production of goods and services. Small businesses are now run by ‘entrepreneurs’; managers and supervisors have been replaced by ‘leaders’. This inflation of job titles is pervasive… our workplaces are filled with executives and coaches, hotel receptionists are labelled ‘impression managers’, shop assistants become ‘sales advisers’. Strategic visions and empowerment have pushed aside organisational management of a more conventional, more boring nature.

Much of this is appealing and seductive, but in my 2013 book The Triumph of Emptiness I discussed how workplace reality seldom lives up to all this. Expressions such as ‘world class’ and ‘excellence’ are increasingly used without much beef behind them in terms of demonstrable qualities or accomplishments. That’s the key to grandiosity: fine image, little substance. In our so-called ‘knowledge economy’, low-level service and distribution still dominate. Or as Stephen Sweet and Peter Meiksins said in their 2008 book Changing Contours of Work, for every well-paid programmer at Microsoft there are three people flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Grandiosity is also salient in the consumer arena, where the focus is on youth, beauty, physical fitness and success. Fashion and brand names have a great impact, and products are associated with identity and a promise they will express, or even create, buyer personalities. Basic needs are becoming less important, ‘individuality’ becomes a particular consumption pattern, and more of the goods and services we buy have narcissistic overtones. Goods and services become objects that are used as a lever to improve self-esteem and status. According to marketing and other life-style experts, products enable you to realise yourself to the full. (All this is beautifully explored in Naomi Klein’s No Logo.) And don’t even get me started on social media…

You may think this is all pretty harmless stuff. If individuals, groups, organisations feel better about themselves, so what? Yet grandiosity often involves reinforcing a superiority to others, and it’s also increasingly haunted by its own emptiness. Grandiose people are doomed to disappointment and frustration. They’re thwarted, developmentally. The ‘grandiose self’ – characterised by fantasies of omnipotence, perfection and success – is a completely normal and prominent part of childhood. The child experiences separation from its parents and compensates for its feelings of being small, marginalised and dependent. Successful development involves integrating these grandiose fantasies into a more positive, stable and realistic self-image. Yet I would argue that immature, grandiose, idealising fantasies and an unstable self-image have become an increasing feature of ‘problem-loaded normal psychology’, a form of ‘heated’ narcissism or inflated sense of self somewhere in between the healthy and the pathological.

The narcissistic personality is, then, not new: but this strange mixture of fantasy and craving may be a defining feature of our age. We seem to spend so much time trying to build a positive self-image, with the help of status symbols, consumption, idols, fantasies, therapeutic interventions, and so on. The promoters of this process include politicians, the mass media, schools, universities and education institutions, marketers, therapists, consultants and other experts on ‘human improvement’. They are all selling a potentially better life – if you simply buy their products or use their services.

All this leads to unstable and vulnerable selves, a culturally oriented exaggeration of subjectivity, accompanied by the need for confirmation of idealised self-images. The sense of self is inflated, it is overheated. Objects are over-invested with personal meaning. And our fragile identities are accompanied by a general frailty: a risk that imperfections and problems lead to increased anxiety, relationship problems, over-consumption of pharmaceuticals, health issues, burn-out tendencies, and so on.

The seemingly grandiose life, then, tends to produce its opposite: uncertainty, doubt, a feeling of emptiness and a suspicion we living in a fake world. As a solution to our societal, individual and existential woes, grandiosity is seriously overrated. And as psychologists, we should be keeping it on our radar.

Thinking inside the box

Stupidity is often associated with low intelligence, but in a social context there is often no clear link between people’s scores on an IQ test and their actual thinking and action. Clever people may do stupid things: not only in private life, where the unconscious plays all sorts of tricks, but also at work, where social forces may be in operation. At the Wannsee conference in Berlin in 1942, well-educated and intelligent people decided on the Final Solution.

When we think about stupidity at work, the image that comes to mind is of a thoughtless chump who leaves a trail of disasters in his wake. Stupid acts may emanate from people that are badly educated, have an excessive workload, receive contradictory requirements or are simply not up to the job. But we can think about stupidity in other ways. We can look at stupidities that are normal, accepted, even rewarded.

‘Pure’ stupidity – where people are obviously thinking and behaving in problematic ways – is typically observed and counteracted at workplaces. Other forms of stupidity – what I and André Spicer call functional stupidity – are not. They are part of business as usual, of normal practice. These forms of stupidity are often undetected, and that’s what makes them important to consider. That’s why functional stupidity is underrated.

Functional stupidity involves narrow thinking, where established frameworks are accepted uncritically. Often functional stupidity does not cause havoc. It is low-key, implicit, and has a mix of positive and negative outcomes. Very few people are completely thoughtless, but many are constrained in their thinking. Most workplaces these days seek to encourage and cultivate critical thinking, reflection and ‘out of the box’ ideas, yet they often remain better at doing the opposite. Managers and subordinates follow organisational and professional templates and cultures without paying much attention to assumptions and beliefs. Experts get obsessed with the detail and grow blind to the bigger picture. Bureaucrats follow laws and rules without much thinking if these make sense or not. Followers willingly let their leaders do the thinking for them. Employees habitually avoid ‘negative thinking’ and look on the bright side. People adapt to norms and expectations of others. They often jump on new fashions and fall for seductively formulated solutions. In each of these cases, people are thinking – but only in the most narrow and circumscribed ways. People are often competent, intelligent and clever within these established limits. Outside the box, stupidity often rules.

A simple proof. About two thirds of all UK universities – arguably the centres of knowledge, critical thinking and reflection – employ more people in managerial, technical and administrative jobs than people doing research and teaching. Behind this surplus of support functions at the expense of core activities, we find the accumulation of functional stupidity. A variety of managers, professionals, functional units and demands for systems, expertise, procedures, rules and activities lead to organisations losing sight of what is meaningful and productive.

Let’s look now at three telltale aspects of functional stupidity.

The first aspect is an absence of reflexivity. This happens when we stop asking questions about our assumptions. Put simply, it involves taking for granted what other people commonly think. We often fail to question dominant beliefs and expectations. We see rules, routines and norms as completely natural: they are just how things are. Members of the organisation often don’t question these deep-rooted assumptions – even if they think they are idiotic.

A second aspect of stupidity is not seeking cause or a good reason. People stop asking ‘why’ at work. They do not ask for, or offer, reasons for their decisions and actions. A rule is a rule and it must be followed, even if no one is clear why it exists. Questions about why something should be done are either completely ignored or dismissed with reference to rank (‘The CEO wants it’), convention (‘We’ve always done it this way’) or taboos (‘We could never do that’).

The third aspect is a lack of substantive reasoning. People stop asking about the wider consequences of their actions and their broader meaning. Instead, they focus on very narrow issues of how something is to be done. Technical questions about the most efficient way to do something completely trump more basic questions, such as whether it should be done in the first place and what effects its practice might have.

This all sounds bad, right? And indeed there are many cases where an accumulation of functional stupidity can result in disastrous outcomes. Something has gone seriously wrong, and with the benefit of hindsight everyone can see why, even though all the correct, approved procedures were followed. But often, functional stupidity rules without any easily detectable consequences. Organisations are full of unproductive meetings, people busy working on and following policies, systems, structures, rules, projects and activities that do not lead to much apart from keeping staff occupied.

Yet there’s another side to functional stupidity. It means order, predictability, smooth social interaction, a feeling of trust and community, focused work and reduced stress. Doubt and existential anxiety easily triggered by the question ‘What in hell are we doing?’ can be avoided. Functional stupidity is a powerful institutionalised defence mechanism. It supports hierarchy and authority. After all, asking too many questions and spending too long reflecting on a situation can make you unpopular. Thoughtfulness can upset the smooth workings of a group, threaten relationships with key people, and disturb existing power structures. All this could make being smart very costly indeed. Play dumb, and the status quo survives; team relationships continue unthreatened, leaders are happy and the burden of thinking about more basic arrangements and purposes is avoided. Your career may prosper. You focus on ‘delivering the goods’.

Functional stupidity is, therefore, a mixed blessing. Stupidity of any sort can get a bad press, and in this way can be considered underrated. A certain kind of stupidity works as an efficient social glue and lubricator; it aids some types of productivity; but it also undermines (particularly in the long run) organisational and professional performances. We need a good dose of functional stupidity, but most workplaces and occupations suffer from a glut.

To spot stupidity we need to step back and ask whether people are fully using their cognitive capacities. Do they have at least some awareness of the assumptions they are making (reflexivity), are they willing to ask for and give good reasons for a course of action (justification), and do they show an awareness of the consequences or broader meaning of their actions (substantive reasoning)? We need to be aware of the phenomenon, and perhaps cautiously work to counter it – ‘What goes on here?’, ‘Why are we doing this?’ – but also be aware of the risks in doing so. It might be a rocky road, but in the end the destination – a meaningful work life, and organisations that contribute more imaginatively for the benefit of patients, pupils, taxpayers, customers, etc. – is worth heading for.

- Mats Alvesson is a PhD in psychology and a professor in organization studies at Lund University. He is also affiliated with University of Queensland and City University, London. He has published over 30 books, including The Triumph of Emptiness and The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work (with André Spicer). [email protected]

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