Functional stupidity can be described as an organisationally supported “… unwillingness or inability to mobilise three aspects of cognitive
capacity: reflexivity, justification and substantive reasoning” (Alvesson
and Spicer, 2012). A lack of reflexivity
is reflected in an unwillingness or inability to question know-hows and norms.
Employees’ thoughts and abilities are repressed in the favour of the dominant
belief of the organisation. A lack of
justification leads to expressed
views and opinions not being backed up well by arguments. This leads to the
acceptance of procedures without any critical input or debate. Finally, a lack of substantive reasoning entails a
refusal to use intellectual resources outside of a narrowly-defined outlook. A
broader understanding of the purpose and aim of one’s actions is thereby
sacrificed for the sake of a specific organisational logic.
There are several implications
of functional stupidity. On the one hand, there are benefits such as a sense of certainty for the organisational
members and the organisation itself. Individuals are protected from doubt and
anxiety, resulting in a more coherent and motivated group of personnel with stable
organisational lives and career paths. For the company itself, organisational
order is maintained by discouraging critical thinking of employees.
Additionally, a sense of purposefulness is created while costs associated with
alterations of the business model are minimised.
On the other hand, functional
stupidity can also have negative implications
for an organisation. It traps individuals and organisations in a spiral of
reinforcing behaviours, potentially producing a dissonance between the espoused
theory, promoted through discourse, and the theories-in-use, reflected in the lived
realities. Such contradictions and ambiguities can become difficult to ignore
and if acknowledged, often lead to reduced certainty along with “…cynicism, alienation, decreased motivation
and a highly limited sense of commitment to the organisation” (Alvesson and
Spicer, 2012). Functional stupidity
can also increase the occurrence of organisational mistakes, since members
avoid asking questions when in doubt and don’t express any forms of critique.
Functional stupidity can influence an organisation’s ability to handle
business development challenges. Firstly, the lack of reflexivity can result in companies responding to problems
by doing more of the same. This constitutes a predictive logic where default
thinking leads to the organisation not acknowledging the complexity of the
problem, thereby responding to it in ways that have worked previously
(Madsbjerg and Rasmussen, 2014). This can be explained by employees performing
daily tasks using learnt cognitive scripts, allowing for them to act without
much reflection. This reinforces single-loop
learning, where decisions are made without reflecting and questioning the
assumptions underlying them (Argyris, 1991). The learned scripts can also blind
individuals of processes that fall outside of them, leading to employees not being
able to spot business challenges not covered by the current sensemaking of the
Secondly, the lack of
justification can lead to a repression or downgrading of doubt and a
blockage of communicative action (Habermas, 1984). Employees’ internal
conversations then begin centralising on positive and coherent narratives of
the organisation. This makes the opinions of the organisational members more
aligned which also increases the risks of group-think.
When faced with a business development issue, there is a need for brainstorming
and weighing different solutions. Having a developed-group-underdeveloped mind
can thereby limit the capacity of an organisation which could have severe
implications for the managing of the issue at hand (Weick and Roberts, 1993).
Furthermore, the organisation could fall victim of the Abilene Paradox, being
misled into a solution that no employee truly believes is in the best interest
of the organisation.
Thirdly, the lack of substantive
reasoning can result in the organisation primarily not acknowledging the
existence of a business development problem. With a narrowly-defined outlook,
the organisation might only consider challenges that have a semantic fit with the dominant logic of
the organisation. In other words, the organisation only considers matters that
are in accordance with a certain pre-defined business logic and therefore risk
missing the bigger picture (Näslund and Pemer, 2011). For example, companies
that were previously not considered competitors can suddenly hit at the very
core of an industry, with disruptive effects on the existing players (Bower and
Christensen, 1995). A company lacking substantive reasoning can therefore
either miss out on recognising a business development challenge, or disregard
it as being undiscussable and insignificant as long as it is not directly
imposing a threat within the narrowly-defined ground of the business model.