It’s one of the cornerstones of pop culture – a well meaning employee caught amongst the trappings of a corporate office. There’s Dilbert, who has to deal with this thick, technically challenged pointy-haired boss; then there’s the American TV show, The Office, which has Michael Scott bumble his way through leading a team. Closer home, Office Office in the 90s showed that government offices weren’t exactly paragons of efficiency.
It seems to be a recurring theme – the media regularly seems to regularly imply that corporate offices don’t foster innovation and smarts. But these depictions might just be mirroring reality, a new book has claimed.
“Smart young things joining the workforce soon discover that, although they have been selected for their intelligence, they are not expected to use it,” says Andre Spicer, author of the new book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work.
“Each summer, thousands of the best and brightest graduates join the workforce. Their well-above-average raw intelligence will have been carefully crafted through years at the world’s best universities,” he says. But their jobs don’t require them to use any of this intelligence – in fact they positively discourage it. “(The students) will be assigned routine tasks that they will consider stupid. If they happen to make the mistake of actually using their intelligence, they will be met with pained groans from colleagues and polite warnings from their bosses. After a few years of experience, they will find that the people who get ahead are the stellar practitioners of corporate mindlessness.”
“After a few years of dull tasks, they hoped that they’d move on to more interesting things. But this did not happen. As they rose through the ranks, these ambitious young consultants realised that what was most important was not coming up with a well-thought-through solution. It was keeping clients happy with impressive PowerPoint shows. Those who did insist on carefully thinking through their client’s problems often found their ideas unwelcome. If they persisted in using their brains, they were often politely told that the office might not be the place for them,” he continues.
“Organisations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. 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.”
The conclusions are blunt, but they will ring true for many of the millions that are employed across Indian offices. Tech offices in India often require routine work that has little room for innovation and creative thinking. And no matter what most companies’ HR policies say, speaking out against the existing policies isn’t taken too kindly.
Maybe this is what’s fueling the growing trend towards entrepreneurship in India. If companies persist in being hierarchical and giving people mundane tasks, more and more driven people will eventually strike out on their own.