How Stupid are You?

I once worked with a guy who managed someone much older and more experienced than him. The more experienced guy was always offering suggestions and sometimes professionally challenging the ideas of his manager.

This was very frustrating to the younger less experienced manager and when the older employee finally retired, the younger manager announced to no one in particular, “The next person I hire for that job isn’t going to know anything about it.” “They won’t have any ideas and they won’t challenge anything I say.” 

Well it turns out he wasn’t actually kidding. He hired a very inexperienced person who meekly did as he was told.  The inexperienced new employee failed in his job. 

So did the much more experienced manager.

Without saying it in so many words, what the manager was saying was that he wanted to hire someone who was functionally stupid. They might be very smart but not about the task they were hired for. They would just do the job and not “get in the way” of a busy manager. 

A pair of Swedish professors are trying to make the case that these functionally stupid people are the best team players because they just “do want they are told” and never disrupt workflow by asking questions.

Isn’t that crazy! Who in the world would want to hire someone that never had ideas, was afraid to suggest solutions or even offer an occasional differing opinion. 

A person like that would be considered “disengaged” by most leaders. They would bring little additional value to the team beyond completing whatever tasks they were assigned. They are the kind of employees that growing companies cannot afford to have on the payroll. 

Most managers and leaders will tell you that they want people around them who will ask questions and even challenge them. They say they want people who can think on their feet and offer solutions to problems. They claim to want people who have the courage to “tell it like it is.”

Yet experienced managers and even some experienced leaders hire very smart people and unintentionally turn them into functionally stupid people.  

They do that by not really listening to their employees ideas, by criticizing their ideas when they do listen and just subtly sending the message that it’s my way or else. Many times the manager or leader isn’t even aware that’s what they are doing. 

Research shows that as a result only 31% of people will express their ideas, thoughts or suggestions to their boss. Far fewer than that will ever dare to actually challenge their boss. They have just learned over time that the boss “isn’t really into that” kind of interaction.

If you’re a leader who is hoping to grow your organization then you must know you can’t afford functionally stupid and disengaged people on your team. Some might sneak past the interview process and others may develop those tendencies after being hired through no fault of yours.  

The one thing YOU can’t afford to do is turn a productive, engaged employee into a functionally stupid one by ignoring or devaluing their ideas and suggestions. Think about it like this: you put up a “suggestion box” and then criticize some ideas and simply ignore the others.

How long do you think it would take before the “suggestions” stopped coming? Well guess what – if you are a leader you have a “suggestion box” sign hanging around your neck and it works just like one hanging on the wall.

If you ignore the well intentioned ideas and suggestions of your team they will go away… if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky they will stay and become functionally stupid.

Which would you prefer? 

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