Archive | April, 2013

Why do smart people do stupid things?

15 Apr

It’s a question that has occupied philosophers for centuries and one that coaches and mentors often encounter in their conversations with clients. Sometimes, it’s people in the client’s environment, who make stupid decisions; sometimes it’s the client him/herself. But a high proportion of the issues coaches and mentors help people deal with involve smart people doing dumb things. One of the exercises I sometimes do with groups of managers or professionals in large organizations is to ask them “How many of you observe that your boss or your boss’ boss has made a really dumb decision in the past three months?”  Almost everyone has at least one example – some people have lots!

Some of this, of course, is a matter perspective – people at more senior levels in theory have a wider pool of information to take into account. But all too often, the decisions are dumb. People below don’t challenge dumb decisions because they:

  • Assume that those more senior have access to better information than they do
  • Fear the consequences of being the person who points out that the emperor has no clothes
  • Follow the herd (if they all think it’s OK, it must be)
  • Have a misplaced loyalty (putting the interests of powerful individuals ahead of those of the organization, its customers etc)
  • Only see the results of their own actions, rather than the larger picture of combined actions of many people.

A recent study of financial services companies shed some light on this issue[1].  Academics at Cass Business School in London and Lund University in Sweden found that, while these companies expended great effort in hiring bright people, they then created the kind of environment that cultivated suspension of rationality – in short, they encouraged stupid behaviour in smart people.

The root of the problem seems to be that these organizations manage risk by attempting to create certainty. This isn’t really possible, so a great deal of energy goes into suppressing doubt and avoiding conversations that question prevailing wisdom. Instead of valuing and encouraging dissenting or ambiguous opinions, these organizations actively seek to prevent them being expressed.

The results are to be seen in the collapse of much of the financial services sector, mis-selling of financial products and Libor rate-rigging.

A critical question for such organizations is therefore: “How do we create the environment, where these conversations can be honest, unpressured, multi-perspective and tolerant of the inherent ambiguity within complex situations?”

Part of the cure for what Alvesson & Spicer call “functional stupidity” comes in the raising the quality of reflexive dialogues that people have: with themselves, within work teams, within the multiple team structures that make up divisions, and within an organization overall. Some practical ways to do this include:

  • Auditing the RQ (Rationality Quotient) of individuals and decision-making teams. (RQ is a measure of people’s ability to assess the validity of their own knowledge.) This isn’t easy – you can’t yet assess using a validated questionnaire – but it is possible to follow the narrative of how decisions were made and periodically re-examined, and hence to identify the cognitive biases that were applied.
  • Using internally and externally resourced “ethical mentors”, whose role is both to help people work through specific ethical dilemmas and to raise their overall ability to recognise and manage ethical issues with greater levels of RQ. The institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales has this year introduced a programme to train experienced finance professionals to perform this role.
  • Introducing external perspectives that may challenge functional stupidity. For example, some organizations invite informed outsiders (including customers) to audit key systems and practices. Had this happened in the context of Libor rates, for example, it could potentially have stopped the illegal behaviour dead, before it became endemic.
  • Reward constructive dissent. Instead of labelling people as disloyal, engage with them in seeking to incorporate their concerns into the design of systems and procedures. Perhaps the greatest incentive for constructive dissent occurs when people, who speak out, get promoted. (If this never happens, or is perceived never to happen, it can only reinforce functional stupidity!)
  • Create processes to review regularly entire systems, in terms of both long-term and short-term outcomes, and operational and reputational risk. Again, having outsiders involved on this process is important.
  • Regularly review the honesty of dialogue across the organization. What are the things that can’t be said, if you value your career? With few exceptions, these will always be indicators of functional stupidity at work!

Working with individual clients, coaches and mentors can apply the same principles. Additionally, they can help clients understand their own decision-making style and when their cognitive biases are most likely to lead them to make dumb decisions. (Dr Sheryll Kennedy and her colleagues have recently developed a practical diagnostic that does this.) Other specific ways of helping include:

  • Enabling the client to take a broader systemic perspective of organizational practices
  • Surfacing “values dissonance” – the often unconscious gap between the values they individual holds and the values they are required to act out in their job role
  • Exploring ways, in which the client can challenge functional stupidity, with least personal risk

What’s for sure is that, without radical action on the part of organizational leadership and HR, functional stupidity will continue to be a feature of large organizations’ culture and consequent behaviours. Yet there is little evidence that either leaders or HR generally are having these honest dialogues, even in those sectors where the need is demonstrably greatest.

© David Clutterbuck 2013

[1] Mats Alvesson& André Spicer (2012) A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations, Journal of Management Studies, Vol 49 (7)  1194–1220, November

Dialogue for performance: how networking helps

11 Apr

One of the basic rules for growing and maintaining effective networks is to look out for interesting conversations. I was fortunate recently to encounter, on a guided walk through the mountains of Gran Canaria, the author of a fascinating study on networking within and between firms. His PhD thesis, published in 2009[1] explored HR practice in a sample of companies in the food industry and compared it to various aspects of networking. Among his most interesting results were that:

  • The more advanced and well-managed the people management systems of an organization were, the better it performed in terms of inter-organizational networking, which is in turn associated with high levels of product and organizational innovation.
  • The companies most highly networked within their industry all ranked networking and communication skills in their top three competencies for juniors and seniors in innovation projects. This fits well with assertions by Devanna and Tichy[2] (1990) that network building organizations will increasingly select workers with the facilitation skills to create and maintain social networks.
  • Higher levels of coaching and other forms of development, including job rotation, encourage people to share information and promote both internal and intra-organizational networking.
  • While firms with both medium and high levels of inter-company networking encouraged the use of personal development plans, those that were most highly networked tended to provide higher levels of career direction. (So people were able to focus their networking activities more clearly.)
  • Support from supervisors for networking was also associated with high levels of networking activity, especially where managers were expected to set a good example. Some companies had members of the leadership team with specific responsibility for encouraging networking.
  • One of the most common reasons people give for not networking is time pressure. Jolink found that too great or too little time pressure were both associated with lower levels of networking, whereas people under intermediate time pressure tend to be more “engaged in what they do, are more curious and more willing to take risks, leading to greater exploration of ideas and networking…  High time pressure can cause employees to rely on routines when approaching problems and can reduce their engagement in exploratory thinking.”
  • In project working generally, “more networking is connected to higher effectiveness of innovation projects, but lower efficiency. Using many external contacts can lead to more creativity in the project and better access to resources. However, networking also takes up considerable time and coordination costs. For new market innovation projects, however, it seems that more networking also leads to better efficiency.”

Among Jolink’s recommendations to HR are (paraphrased):

  • Select new hires based on their networking competencies and the strength of their existing networks
  • Look at training and development as opportunities for people to build their networks and encourage them explicitly to do so
  • Reward and recognize people for their achievements in projects (which helps them be sought out by other particular networking partners)
  • Explicitly communicate that people should know potentially relevant partners in their field
  • Develop the habit at both individual and firm level of telling people what you are working on/ interested in
  • Manage the time pressures – have systems in place to take the pressure off to ensure people do network
  • Invite outsiders into project teams, both as a direct learning resource, but also because of their links to other potential network partners

[1] Jolink, M. (2009) People Management to Stimulate Networking: A study in the Food Industry. PhD thesis to the University of Mijmegen

[2] Devanna, M.A. and Tichy, N. (1990), ‘Creating the Competitive Organization of the 21 st Century: The Boundaryless Corporation’. Human Resource Management. 455-471.

Getting to Aha!

10 Apr

How to help coaching/mentoring clients achieve powerful insights


The Aha! moment is something that all coaches and mentors relish – the point when there is a sudden and seismic shift in a client’s perception about an issue. It’s almost impossible to predict when it will happen. Sometimes it happens within the coaching/ mentoring conversation; sometimes it is the result of further reflection by the client days, weeks (and in a few cases I have encountered) years afterwards. But suddenly, a new understanding dawns, bringing with it new possibilities and different choices. As  Harvard psychologist and author Shelley Carson describes it: “During moments of insight, cognitive filters relax momentarily and allow ideas on the brain’s back burner to leap forward into conscious awareness”. She references research at Northwestern University that observed brain behaviour as subjects reached the Aha! moment. First there is a period of alpha wave activity (which they suggest turns attention inward), then a sudden burst of alpha waves as a solution bursts into conscious awareness.


So how do we help this process along? Many coaching and mentoring approaches, including CLEAN language, constellations and the use of narrative and metaphor are aimed at helping the client shift from one mental perspective to another. It’s as if people need a mental jog at just the right time to take them from one tramline to another.


However, all of these helpful processes rely on the client’s ability to be creative in the moment. We have to help them achieve an appropriate state of mind for creativity. Fortunately, recent research in both behavioural science and neuroscience is giving us clues on how we can be more effective in doing so.


A lot of coaching theory focuses on the need for a strong focus on goals. But it seems that creative problem solving tends to occur when we are not focusing on the problem. It’s partly because thinking about other things gives the subconscious time to work on the problem. (Hence the period immediately before and immediately after sleep is one of our most creative times.)


Experiments with problem solving show that people are more creative when they take a short break to play games. However, “play” and “games” are in fact two very different activities. Games have rules, which have to be followed. Play does not have rules and so allows for more creative responses to stimuli. Play has no obvious function, and particularly, no goal. Research on play finds that it is strongly associated with socio-emotional development in both children and adults. In particular, it develops social skills, persistence and resilience, language skills; promotes higher brain function in areas of the cortex related to emotional management and social learning; and reduces stress and the danger of burnout. Current thinking about the nature of work and play is that they are not opposed, but complementary – effectiveness in work is closely linked to quality and scope of play.


A similar turnabout is occurring in our understanding of the role of daydreaming. From early school years, we are told off for daydreaming. Yet people spend an average of 30% of their time “wool-gathering”, in one of two modes: positive-constructive  (being imaginative and creative) or dysphoric (pessimistic thinking about failures or likely negative outcomes). It seems that positive-constructive daydreaming is helpful in problem solving. Experiments at the University of Lancaster indicate that doing a moderately challenging activity with no particular purpose (like reading something that mildly takes our interest) makes us more effective in tackling complex and difficult problems shortly afterwards.


Practical approaches that coaches and mentors can take to stimulate Aha! include:

  • Start the conversation with humour. Laughter follows a similar pattern to insight, especially when it involves leading the mind down one track before diverting it suddenly to another, unexpected perspective. The relaxation that comes from laughter predisposes us to more creative solutions. An approach I often use is to ask a tense client at the beginning of a session: What’s the most ridiculous thing that’s happened to you since we last met?
  • Don’t overuse techniques and processes that focus intensely on the problem. If you use techniques such as solutions focus, or scales of 0 to 10, take time out to give the brain an opportunity to come at the issue obliquely.
  • Invoke the mechanisms of play and daydreaming by asking the client to use their imagination. For example, What’s the most outrageous thing you could do in this situation? If you were to turn this situation into a script for a comedy, what would you say about the main players?
  • Allow the client time to follow their own inner meanderings and make it clear that it’s OK for them to do so. In extremis, even let them take a short nap! But help them to focus on positive rather than negative daydreaming, by suggesting a starting point that involves positive emotions.
  • When the client does achieve an Aha! moment, do nothing that might impede their immersion in the new understanding.  Either say nothing at all, or encourage them to articulate and structure what they have learned, with questions such as What’s different in the way you see this now?
  • Above all, remember that the insight they have achieved is their success, their breakthrough, not yours. All you have done is help them find the space and mood, in which their own creativity can work its magic.



Carson, S  (2011) The Unleashed Mind, Scientific American MIND, April

Pellegrini, AD, Dupuis, D & Smith PK, (2007) Play in Evolution and Development, Developmental Review, Vol 27,  261-276

Singer, JL (1975) The Inner World of Daydreaming, Harper & Riw, New York

Ut Na Sio & Thomas C. Ormerod (2009) Does Incubation Enhance Problem Solving? A Meta-Analytic Review, Psychological Bulletin Vol. 135, No. 1, 94–120