Smarter organisations

fighting the reflection deficit

How can we make it easier for organisations to get the most value out of the work and efforts they put in? How do we safeguard innovation and listen to the voices of non-conformists? The concept of functional stupidity is used to describe the phenomenon that permeates many workplaces today.

Illustration of human evolution. Photo:

Contrary to how it sounds, it requires a certain intelligence – it is about trying to satisfy organisational targets rather than doing something to make the world better in the end. Adapting to the established culture and not making mistakes can become a driving force that overshadows the quest to reach beyond the obvious and sometimes trivial.

Utilise newcomers, outsiders and critics

“Every wise organisation should utilise employees whose eyes are open and who have alternative perspectives, as well as newcomers, outsiders and critics”, says Professor of Business Administration Mats Alvesson.

“Unfortunately, organisations are often permeated by a reflection deficit. Critical questions are seen as uncomfortable. Instead, we assume a position of compliance where we try not to give anyone a reason to complain. We may then end up in a situation where everyone does the right thing, a positive spirit prevails and everything seems good, but in fact functions poorly.

Functional stupidity can be catastrophic

When Mats Alvesson and his co-author introduced the concept in a scientific article, it was widely recognised at workplaces and received a lot of attention in international media. The concept was picked up by Le Monde, Financial Times and Business Week among other media outlets, and became part of the Swedish language in the following year.

“The consequences of functional stupidity can be catastrophic to a business from a long-term perspective”, says Mats Alvesson who, together with Roland Paulsen and Yiannis Gabriel, has also studied how academia can ensure that the publication of research truly helps create meaning and seek solutions to the issues facing society – rather than maintaining a culture where research is sufficient in itself.

Last published: 2020-02-21