Organizational Intelligence, Language and Stress

Recently I was perusing an Organizational Intelligence website, and one interesting category got me thinking. In talking about blocks to good organizational dynamics, it mentioned ‘removing organizational stupidity’. The site qualified stupidity like this: “stupidity is not making errors, stupidity is repeating them”. The quality of the wisdom may be strong. The quality of the wording may need to be considered.

For a group of people who think of themselves in terms of intelligences, competencies and ‘stupidity avoiders’, I suppose this language is all well and fine. The problem I’ve seen with this language-and this is not to say we have any better, though it might pay to start looking-is that this language moralizes in a way that doesn’t maximize our entire team’s potential. The ego reaction is either something like Joseph Campbell used to say; “What a Good Boy am I”, or a response like “If I make a mistake, it must be a stupid mistake, and I must not be intelligent at all”.

This may seem like nit-picking for the thin skinned, but I come from a workplace culture where instead of generating the best possible solutions for any given problem, we generate defenses against improvement and proclaim ‘intelligence is not hip’. I see these ego defenses as reactions not only to shaming by others, but to the internalization of shaming practices as well. If we don’t feel like we are intelligent, competent, or successful, then we are much more likely either to react with self blame, or to react with heated defensiveness, constructing not only a reaction to the idea of competencies we may or may not have, but a complete ego identity that will avoid the taking on of said practices for fear of looking awkward, inept, or stupid-to others as well as ourselves.

The dynamic of self image and how others perceive you, often critical in organizational roles, can be a place of great certainty, a developing or well developed competency. Self image and how others perceive you, according to Reuven Bar-On et al.’s Teaching Emotional Intelligence, are critical emotional intelligence competencies. But competency/incompetence, intelligence/stupidity and the like can be loaded terms.

How many of us would like to be considered stupid, even slightly? Will most of us perform better if we think of ourselves as stupid, when we are not up to par with our or others’ sense of expectation?

The use of the term stupid, like intelligence, is in my opinion a moral word. Stupid equals shaming. Intelligence equals rewarding. Granted, there are other ways to view these terms, and a thick skin is preferable to sensitivity, except when it comes to emotional attunement and empathy, both competencies of emotional intelligence. One of the strong beliefs I share with Bar-on, Daniel Goleman, Howard Gardner and others who have struggled to find a language for our best potentials and the blocks that get in the way, is that we all can learn to some degree these competencies. We may be naturally more adept at EI or OI competencies than others, whether due to genes or an early, supportive, nurturing environment-or early fluency and frequent practice-but I have enormous faith, trust and a wealth of histories to suggest that we all are much more capable of learning than we may demonstrate.

Learnability can itself be a factor shut down by strong right/wrong thinking and perfectionism. If we already have a perceptive and linguistic framework that says ‘this is smart, and that’s stupid’, we build in a shaming process-or inherit it from strong right/wrong influences early in life-that can backfire on us. Instead of starting things with a beginner’s mind, and low expectations, we may wind up blustering over an idea just to keep from initial failure.

What about stress? I was thinking about the Organizational Intelligence website’s use of the word ‘stupid’, and how frustrating it is to be around people who have such built up ego defenses that learning is a substantial threat. And I can tell you, I’ve been around organizational environments that, in order to protect themselves from confronting the issue of whether they can learn or not-succeed, or fail?-become very resistant to change. This resistance in the face of a better idea is highly frustrating. Frustration seeks expression, and the easiest thing to do is reach for a term that justifies the moment, like stupid. “This is highly stupid”. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Ah, now I feel better! I’m venting stress.

Stress issues underlie all these issues. Where self esteem issues exist, stress issues exist. Crank up the pressure in a high stress environment or situation, and the ego becomes highly defensive and self esteem issues become critical. Where cognitive dissonance exists from how I perceive myself (self image) versus how others perceive me, stress and lower stress headroom also exist. Where someone calls me stupid, I don’t care how comfortable I am with ignoring that person, how good I am at managing my emotions, how good I am at controlling the expression of my emotions-emotional competencies-my stress tolerance will be temporarily lowered, and it would pay to have a way to acknowledge and compensate cognitively-and with relaxation behaviors, physiologically-for that.