Why do smart people do stupid things?

'Kick-Start Your Thinking'

I think it was the English journalist Francis Wren who said that the world was becoming monopolized by ‘process morons with Blackberries and iPhone’s’. His central point was that the process (the way we do things) has obscured the purpose (the why we do things).

Institutionalized Stupidity: He might be onto something.  I discovered this when undergoing a minor medical procedure in the Mater Public hospital. Late one night, a nurse woke me up to give me a sleeping pill. You couldn’t make it up. However, the really interesting organization question is “why do clever people do stupid things?” And, the answer is (usually)…because that’s the way it’s always been done. Processes in organizations play the equivalent role to tracks in Irish Rail. Everything moves along the existing path – and few people even question this. The best employees ‘move faster’ along the existing tracks. They are programmed to deliver, rather than to ask the potential breakthrough question: “Should we be doing this at all”? Yet, in many organizations the best way forward is not to superglue existing inefficiencies, but tear up the blueprint and start again from scratch. It’s a road seldom travelled.

Tavistock Institute: In experimental group work at Leicester University, I convinced my team to withhold information that would effectively allow us to take control of the proceedings. A tad subversive perhaps, but it worked and technically we won the exercise. In this training forum, there was absolutely nothing material at stake. But the pushback from the other groups against our ‘crime’ was monumental. We had broken the group norms and the negative feedback was loud, vociferous and almost personally threatening. And this in a forum where we were supposed to experiment with process and ‘leadership’ (many people work to a definition of leadership that is fiercely conservative).

Family Patterns: In work organizations, we learn to conform, to go along, to ‘not speak up’. Otherwise we risk being ostracized. Exactly as most of us learned to behave in our first organization, the family. Most of us are programmed to conform from an early age – and learn that lesson all too well. This is reinforced when we go to work and are re-programmed to be conservative for a second time. This idea has a particular relevance to the current debate on the reform of the public sector.

Public Sector: Historically, senior Public Servants played a game that could be labeled as ‘Mind the Minister’. If they had an opposing view to the Ministers view, it was seldom committed to paper. I am convinced that some future academic study will reveal that the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act will have succeeded in burying more information than it has released – as it has pushed ‘alternative viewpoints’ 30,000 feet underground. Nothing is now committed to paper. Secondly, the seniority system is based on time-served – rather than breakthrough thinking. In the UK they refer to this system of promotion as ‘Muggins Turn’. In order to get promoted, you learn to keep your head below the parapet – very much in keeping with the Japanese motto: ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down’. The combined effects of a family culture in which we ‘learn our place’ and a workplace culture where we ‘keep our place’ have conspired to disallow challenges to the status quo. We make changes ‘at the margins’ and only then by consensus. Our goal is to achieve ‘buy in’, elevating the process of leadership to a higher platform that the result – hence the ‘process morons’ comment by Wren referred to earlier.

Inner Leader: The challenge for each of us is clear. Practice being an adult at work – rather than an overgrown schoolchild following orders. Start with a personal revolution against stupid work practices that no longer make sense (I’m working on the assumptions here that you actually want to make a difference). Do it, even if it’s just to escape the boredom. Release your inner leader! Don’t be a smart person, continuing to do stupid things.  And sometimes I even take my own advice!

Paul Mooney


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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