We want smart phones, smart cars, and smart refrigerators, but we do not want smart employees. Or, to say it more accurately, our organizations are designed to ensure that smart employees act stupidly. This is what Andre Spicer and Mats Alvesson have concluded from their research on organizations. They write:

For the past two decades, management theorists have been convinced that organisations succeed or fail on the basis of their specialised knowledge. However, our close look at the corporate world showed Stupidity quite a different picture: many large corporations seemed over-run by stupidity. What’s more, this stupidity is not just the accidental result of a few corporate buffoons. It is often intentionally created. This is much more than taking advantage of the various inbuilt cognitive biases with which behavioural economists are so obsessed. Rather, it involved organisations purposefully creating a kind of collective mindlessness.

What they label “stupidity” is the tendency to follow unproductive rules and regulations without questioning their value, speaking in meaningless jargon to sound smart, and doing whatever everyone else is doing just because everyone else is doing it. In other words, being stupid about one’s work. Companies that Spicer and Alvesson studied, hired smart people but then these people, because of company culture, were discouraged from using their brains.

This is what Steve Jobs probably meant when he said, “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Maybe Apple allowed smart people to act smart, but most companies set up cultural barriers that prevent people from learning and applying that learning to improving organizational performance.

Chris Argyris referred to these “stupid” behaviors as “organizational defenses”. In his classic 1990 text, Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, Argyris made us aware of “defensive routines” in organizations that get in the way of learning. He writes:

…whenever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat. In order for the bypass to work, it must be covered up…Organizational defensive routines are actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat. Simultaneously, they prevent people from identifying and getting rid of the causes of the potential embarrassment or threat. Organizational defensive routines are anti-learning, overprotective, and self-sealing. (p. 25)

In the past, maybe a company could survive without employees using what they know, by simply doing what they’re told. This is what David Grebow and I call “managing hands.” However, in this era of rapid technological change, automation, globalization, and a multi-generational workforce, organizations can’t afford a culture that makes organizations stupid. Rather, companies need smart employees who use their collective knowledge to make their companies smarter, encouraging continuous improvement, creativity, and innovation. This is what Grebow and I call "managing minds." In our forthcoming book for the Association for Talent Development (ATD), we explain this shift from "managing hands" to "managing minds."

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