'Functional stupidity': Is it smart to play dumb on the job?

Friday, May 31, 2013

“How stupid are you?” is still considered an insult, but if a pair of Swedish professors are correct, it soon might become one of the more important questions on a job application. The recommended answer will be: “How stupid do you want me to be?”

This might sound dumb — and critics are quick to say it is — but the Swedes argue that stupidity can increase office efficiency.

The profs said that functional stupidity is not necessarily a factor of IQ. It can be a result of office politics, a byproduct of a workforce that has lost its motivation or a fear of reprisal for speaking up.

That part of their theory struck a chord with Chad Brinsfield, a professor in the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. While “I've never seen a company that had a problem with too many smart people,” he said, he has encountered ones where executives encourage the employees to play dumb, often without realizing they’re doing so,

“There are subtle pressures exerted in organizations to go along with the flow — go along to get along — and if you speak up against something or don’t go along with the leaders’ thinking, they say things like, ‘You’re not a good fit’ or, ‘We have intellectual differences,’?” he said.

“I think that happens outside of conscious awareness most of the time,” he said. “Most leaders aren’t going to say, ‘I want to be surrounded by yes men.’ They’ll say, ‘I want people around me who will challenge me.’ That’s what they say. But subtly, they exert pressures on people to do just the opposite.”

Keeping your mouth shut

Brinsfield has been doing his own research on why employees refuse to speak up, even on crucial issues such as improving a product or boosting profits. A recently published report capsulizing four studies he’s done on “employee silence” identifies 56 reasons why people opt to keep their thoughts to themselves.

“That contributes to functional stupidity,” he said. “Oftentimes people have an idea for improving an organization, but they won’t speak up about it.”

Originally published: 05/31/2013, Star Tribune