Stupid can never stand up to courage
When retired Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen spoke last Saturday night at the annual Bob Ewert Memorial Dinner and Lecture, he told two stories about functional stupidity.
His first anecdote was about the mandatory evacuation of the entire city of nearly 90,000 people. Sending everyone south was obviously the best plan.
South led to sanctuary communities that could help and was the opposite direction the fire was moving. The only thing north were the oil camps and the uncontrolled blaze was moving in that direction.
A member of his staff stopped Allen and told him he was wrong.
Sending everyone south would take too far too long, the employee argued, presenting Allen with the number of people involved, the number of vehicles and how long it would take them to all leave the city on one road. People would either die trapped in the traffic jam on Highway 63 South or inside the burning city.
The staff member suggested sending 30,000 people — the residents who lived north and west of the Athabasca River — in the opposite direction. There was nothing there except for lakes and forests, some lodges, the tiny community of Fort McKay and the massive oil sands camps.
It seemed crazy and dangerous but the suggestion forced Allen to slow down and reevaluate the evacuation plan. Despite the risks, the plan made sense if the primary goal was to save lives by emptying the city as fast as possible.
Ten minutes later, they revised the plan, as the employee had recommended.
Allen had been on the path to making a stupid and potentially tragic mistake. His staff member stopped him.
Allen later issued a direct order — the only one he gave during the crisis, he told the Ewert audience — for his men to abandon several neighbourhoods and retreat to safer ground, where they could rest, regroup and focus their efforts on areas more likely to be spared the fire’s wrath.
Firefighters fight fires until the fire is out; they do not pack up their equipment and drive away while homes are burning, he told the hushed crowd, many of them doctors and nurses who would certainly understand the agony of stopping treatment of a patient in need.
They would have died out there, fighting the fire, if he had let them stay, he said.
Put another way, he alerted those firefighters to their functional stupidity, telling them those homes were not worth dying for.
Functional stupidity can be of great value but can also cause devastating harm in workplaces, a concept Andr Spicer and Mats Alvesson explore in their book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work.
In their influential 2012 article in the Journal of Management Studies, A StupidityBased Theory of Organizations, that led to the book, Spicer and Alvesson explained how stupidity(bad) can be functional (good). “By cultivating functional stupidity, organizations are able to avoid the costs associated with broader critical thinking,” they wrote.
“By refraining from asking difficult and probing questions, they are able to create a sense of purposefulness and certainty around the organizations’ activities, despite the questionable basic of many of them.”
The authors called that last part “stupidity self-management,” where workers put aside their doubts - in their abilities, the wisdom of their managers and any concerns about the legitimacy or necessity of the task - to get the job done and then later convince themselves their stupidity was actually smart and the right thing to do.
That can often be commendable but, like functional stupidity, stupidity self-management also has its downside.
If employees are going to work, doing their job and going home because the boss won’t listen, nobody cares or they take a “I’m not paid to think about this,” the workplace suffers.
Stupidity self-management is essential to military and paramilitary organizations, such as police forces and fire departments, and their uniformed personnel, where the chain of command establishes a strong degree of clarity and focus but opens the workplace to widespread stupidity, both at the individual decision level but also as part of the workplace culture (“that’s just the way we do things here”).
Although he didn’t use the phrase functional stupidity in his speech, Allen’s riveting stories made it clear that the antidote to stupidity — functional or not, in the workplace or in our personal lives — is courage.
Speaking up, even with ideas that seem stupid on the surface, takes courage. Stepping forward to resolve a situation, without waiting for direction, also requires courage. Stopping to listen to an opposing view and reconsider what seems like an obivous choice takes courage. So does leading people in a direction they might not want to go and then taking responsibility for that decision, regardless of its outcome.
Stupid is as stupid does, said Forrest Gump, a classic example of someone who knows that there are times when it’s smart to be stupid and it’s always the right time to do the right thing.
Being smart is great, but when supposedly-intelligent people won’t listen to contrary views, refuse to accept they aren’t the brightest person in the room and see changing their mind in light of new information as a sign of weakness, that will always be stupid.
Neil Godbout is managing editor of The Prince George Citizen.