We all prefer to hang out with positive people.

Being with optimists is just more fun than being with Eeyores. But do things always work out for the better in a team of optimists? I wondered about this the other day after seeing some ‘I’m sure it will be alright’ happening in a break-out group at a big simulation exercise workshop.  There was certainly a jolly atmosphere in the group.  But by the end of the day they had crashed and burned in the exercise.

A little research the next day shed some light, I think, on what I had witnessed. It’s called The Stockdale Paradox.

James Stockdale (1923-2005), a venerated and much decorated US Admiral, was a Prisoner of War in a grim Vietnamese camp for 8 years. He endured torture without any promise of release, and yet devised many resourceful, practical, high personal risk methods to help others survive.

His answer to the question ‘which prisoners perished?’ was – ‘the optimists’. He noted that those who hoped and believed that “all will be well” – in the case of the camp that release was imminent – were inevitably disappointed and broken. Those who took a long hard look at the situation and faced up to the realities devised strategems and took actions that helped their survival.

They were not-quite-optimists.

Their optimism took the form of resilient belief in personal wit and strength to overcome. So the paradox was expressed ‘you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality, whatever they might be’.

The ability to confront brutal facts yet retain faith.

Now those are the kind of people to hang out with.






In Terry Pratchett’s novel ‘Unseen Academicals’, Ms Pushpram, an experienced handler of seafood, knows not to bother with a lid for the crab bucket. If one crab tries to climb out, the others will pull it back.

Oh, how we laugh. In a knowing sort of way.

At some point, we will all find ourselves in a culture that very much resembles that ‘crab bucket’.  What is this recognisable (and dispiriting) phenomenon?  Professor André Spicer and his co-author Mats Alvesson pinned a harsh but temptingly useful label on things in their 2016 book ‘The Stupidity Paradox’.

A tongue-in-cheek routemarch through ‘the power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work’ reveals both the safety, comfort and advancement benefits of ‘going along with – stupid – things’ versus the possibly catastrophic consequences of failing to think critically or reflectively about the project or future under discussion.

The authors suggest useful approaches to escape the stupidity trap: Devil’s Advocate questioning, reflection time, cultivating ‘Negative Capability’ (see Change Chemistry blog October 6 2016), and disaster-horizon planning. All these techniques will help surface the certainly present uncomfortable facts and issues that require smart, not stupid, engagement.

Professor Spicer’s next book, due Oct 2017, is called ‘Business Bullshit’.

Aren’t the words ‘Stupidity’ and ‘Bullshit’ brilliant? Don’t they grab you?  But something niggles.

It is easier to shock and to deride – and both are necessary – when on the outside.
Yet words such as ‘habit’ or ‘ritual’ instead of ‘stupidity’, would suggest a more complicated ecosystem.

We live in a post-modern world.

Multiple realities; constantly re-forming what we mean by right / wrong, good/bad; fluid and re-constructed identities; all form the soup in which we now swim.

Power changes, slips away and reforms.

Organisations need to reform too, into cultures where individuals can recognise and exercise power in different, non-conformist ways.

Inside that bucket, it’s not stupidity at work. The occupants of that bucket are exercising the only power they can see available to them.