The one sentence summary

Many organisations are caught up in a stupidity paradox: they employ smart people who end up doing stupid things.


  • Why do smart people do stupid things at work? Welcome to the idea of functional stupidity. It can be catastrophic for companies, or just manifest itself in absurd everyday examples of idiotic, unsustainable management fads and daft working practices.
  • And yet a dose of stupidity can be useful and produce good, short-term results, nurturing harmony, and encouraging people to get on with things without questioning everything.
  • Functional stupidity has three main facets:
  1. Not thinking about your assumptions (absence of reflexivity)
  2. Not asking why you are doing something (justification)
  3. Not considering the consequences or wider meaning of your actions (substantive reasoning)
  • There are five main types: Leadership-induced, Structure-induced, Imitation-induced, Branding-induced, and Culture-induced.
  • Managers encourage it by using authority, seduction, naturalisation and opportunism. It helps to stamp out negative capability – the ability to tolerate ambiguity and work out how to resolve problems effectively.
  • It can be solved by observing, interpreting, questioning. Try introducing reflective routines, devil’s advocates, post-mortems, pre-mortems, the views of newcomers, outsiders and critics, and an anti-stupidity task force.


  • Many people actually don’t want to use their brains. One study showed that over 50% of people would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit and just think for 6 to 11 minutes.
  • It’s not imbeciles or bigots who do the most stupid things – you need to be relatively intelligent to be functionally stupid. Knowing too much can be frustrating and stressful – wilful ignorance is easier.
  • The K word is the knowledge economy. Companies describe themselves as knowledge intensive to disguise the fact that the jobs are actually dull – it’s just a confidence trick.
  • Most jobs require less skill than the people doing them – automation has created a new generation of bullshit jobs, part of a new age of stupidity. This often involves skilled incompetence, in which supposed experts fall back into defensive routines to justify doing what they have always done.
  • Meanwhile there has been a massive McDonaldisation of jobs – a huge increase in mindless, low paid work.
  • When ex-Amazon employees move to other companies, they often take with them grindingly critical work practices, earning themselves the nickname ‘Amholes’.


  • Not much – it’s well argued and suitably provocative.