Embracing Stupidity in Jewish Organizational Life

While all organizations face the functional stupidity challenge, there are special structural reasons that make the challenge exponentially more difficult in Jewish organizational life.

by Ed Rettig

You have to love a dry scientific journal of business management that publishes an article entitled “A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations” (Journal of Management Studies 49:7, Nov. 2012). From the title, one might assume the article is a humorous send up of management theory. Instead, we find an original, thought-provoking analysis painfully applicable to the way we think about the workings of Jewish organizations.

Authors Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer give us an analytic tool to look at ourselves in a new, challenging way. With considerable courage, they call into question a fundamental assumption of our age: that organizations are getting smarter. This self-serving idea, they suggest, leads to misunderstandings of how organizations work.

“An enormous body of writing on knowledge, information, competence, wisdom, resources, capabilities, talent, and learning in organizations has emerged in recent decades, in which there is a common assumption of ‘smartness.’ Although this term has not been used systematically in the study of organizations, it capteures (sic) the underlying premise that a vital issue for contemporary organizations is their ability intelligently to mobilize cognitive capacities,” they write.

While they acknowledge the “strong rhetorical value” of “smartness” they suggest it “needs to be challenged. It creates a one-sided, widely-shared, and rather grandiose portrait of the smart, knowledge-based firm and its employees. This picture may be appealing, but it misses how effective organizational functioning calls also for qualities that do not easily fit with the idea of smartness.”

As if to confirm the wisdom of countless stand-up comedians, Alvesson and Spicer suggest that the phenomenon they term “functional stupidity” is a powerful force in organizational life and can be a seductive temptation for management. “Functional stupidity is organizationally-supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning and justification. It entails a refusal to use intellectual resources outside a narrow and ‘safe’ terrain. It can provide a sense of certainty that allows organizations to function smoothly. This can save the organization and its members from the frictions provoked by doubt and reflection. Functional stupidity contributes to maintaining and strengthening organizational order. It can also motivate people, help them to cultivate their careers, and subordinate them to socially acceptable forms of management and leadership. Such positive outcomes can further reinforce functional stupidity. However, functional stupidity can also have negative consequences such as trapping individuals and organizations into problematic patterns of thinking, which engender the conditions for individual and organizational dissonance.”

Noting a body of research into flaws that impede smartness, such as organizational irrationality, group-think and wishful thinking, they suggest these miss important organizational behaviors that are “neither semi-rational nor purely stupid.” It is these they label “functional stupidity.”

The dynamics of political power define what is “safe” and by doing so they risk enforcing functional stupidity. A recent example in American Jewish life was the firing of an employee of a federation for publishing a passionate article on eJewishPhilanthropy calling into question the Jewish communal prioritizing of programming for Jews in the “breeding” ages. While her strongly worded article expressed exasperation, it never strayed beyond a robust exercise of the reflexivity we expect to encounter in a professional publication devoted to Jewish philanthropy and the dilemmas of Jewish communal service. Whether or not her analysis was correct, and whether or not there were other reasons for removal from her job, her firing in the immediate aftermath of publication of the article was a classic exercise of power directed against reflexivity, against providing rationales for decisions and against justification. In Alvesson and Spicer’s language, the danger in her firing was the danger of “stupidity self-management” reflected in the tendency of employees to internalize management’s resistance to creative reflexivity, rationality and justification.

“This happens when various actors (including managers and senior executives as well as external figures such as consultants, business gurus and marketers) exercise power to block communicative action,” Alvesson and Spicer note. “…Externally imposed attempts to regulate the use of cognitive capacities are taken up by employees through what we call stupidity self-management. This happens when employees limit internal reflexivity by cutting short ‘internal conversations.'”

To be sure, Jewish organizations periodically engage in exercises of structured reflexivity, gathering our energies to examine our goals, outcomes and methodologies. But, as Alvesson and Spicer indicate there is a danger that the pathways along which we condone that reflexivity can tend toward narrow boundaries. As a result, Jewish communal service professionals or lay persons who seek to move up the chain of command find they do well to learn to toe a certain line. The consequence – “stupidity self management”- is an over-eagerness to trim their sails to the prevailing winds.

Functional stupidity is not only the work of higher management – “us” being bullied by “them” or “us” having to crack the whip over “them” – but offers a more subtle analysis. Some limits on reflexivity, providing rationales and offering justifications are necessary to the healthy functioning of an organization. The challenge is not to eliminate the management hierarchy, but to calibrate functional stupidity in organizational life in order to enjoy its advantages and avoid its dire pitfalls. The insight Alvesson and Spicer provide about the necessity of some level of functional stupidity helps us to weigh its function in Jewish communal organizations.

While all organizations face the functional stupidity challenge, there are special structural reasons that make the challenge exponentially more difficult in Jewish organizational life. Like most NGOs, Jewish organizations tend to run through a system of parallel lay and professional hierarchies of authority. Complex and often inconsistent interaction takes place between the hierarchies, with lay leaders, who are also donors, often “adopting” specific projects and interacting semi-regularly with even junior management staff. These dynamics transpire in communities that can be claustrophobic, where one’s fellow professional staff, donors and/or lay leaders are often present in the synagogue, at the JCC, the kosher restaurant and the day school. The implicit pressures to toe the line in order to be safe – i.e. to engage in stupidity self-management – are thus expansive and can extend beyond the professional environment. The pressure toward less effective, less creative work, less independence or self-criticism, less risk taking, can thus expand to communal life generally, harming the effectiveness of one’s involvement far beyond the workplace.

Here is an important lesson from the recent case of the fired federation worker, if we have the courage to look it in the eye: In Alvesson and Spicer’s terms, the risk is high that “functional stupidity” will assume unproductive levels in Jewish organizational life. Our lay and professional leaders can prevent that by maintaining a high level of awareness of the dangers of throttling reflexivity, the provision of rational reasons for actions taken and justification and exercise of power accordingly. There is so much at stake. True, we need some degree of “functional stupidity” in our organizational life. But faced with a challenge like those evidenced in the firing of the author of the eJewish Philanthropy article, we may suggest that greater managerial judiciousness is in order. Given the dangers inherent in the disproportionate use of power over communication and the potentially devastating impact of widespread stupidity self-management, it seems better by far to err on the side of suppressing “functional stupidity” rather than to seek to enjoy its short term benefits.

Dr. Edward Rettig recently retired after representing an American Jewish organization in Israel.