Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways. Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. By avoiding thinking too much, they are able to focus on getting things done. Escaping the kind of uncomfortable questions that thinking brings to light also allows employees to side-step conflict with co-workers. By toeing the corporate line, thoughtless employees get seen as ‘leadership material’ and promoted. Smart people quickly learn that getting ahead means switching off their brains as soon as they step into the office.
Another significant source of stupidity in firms is a deep faith in leadership. In most organizations today, senior executives are not content with just being managers. They want to be leaders. They see their role as not just running their business but also transforming their followers. They talk about ‘vision’, ‘belief’ and ‘authenticity’ with great verve. All this sounds like our office buildings are brimming with would-be Nelson Mandelas. However, when you take a closer look at what these self-declared leaders spend their days doing, the story is quite different.
To make their roles seem more important and exciting than they actually are, corporate executives become leadership addicts. They read leadership books. They give lengthy talks to yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly they attend many courses, seminars and meetings with ‘leadership’ somewhere in the title. The content of many of these leadership-development courses would not be out of place in a kindergarten or a New Age commune. There are leadership-development courses where participants are asked to lead a horse around a yard, use colouring-in books, or build Lego – all in the name of developing them as leaders.
One last source of corporate stupidity we came across was company culture. Often, these cultures imprison employees in narrow ways of viewing the world, such as the common obsession with constant change. One hi-tech company we studied was very enthusiastic about change, and launched new change initiatives every few years, often with little or no real results. The programme would be launched with great fanfare, but not much happened next. Everyone seemed to think that someone else was responsible for creating change. And when it became clear that nothing substantive was changing, senior executives dropped the initiative and moved on to the next fashionable change programme without learning anything.