Why Morons Win

Posted By on Sep 2, 2010


In the fall of 1997 we were working on final negotiations with a Fortune 1000 firm. This was an extremely large opportunity and the relationship was absolutely critical to our success. As a condition of closing we had to brief their president and I was extremely nervous. Did we have all our ducks in a row? Was there some consideration we hadn’t controlled for? Would he balk at the final pricing? As a young professional my mind was reeling with doubt and uncertainty.

As you’ll see, my concerns was completely unfounded.

When I entered the conference room I was met by a disheveled middle-aged man who was bowled over in laughter. I smiled (to fit in) and he just kept waving me away as he stomped the ground repeatedly, wracked by the pleasure of (I found out later) his own joke. His team smirked apologetically and we eventually got him settled down, although the occasional burst of popcorn laughter would slip out unexpectedly.

Yes, this was their glorious leader.

He didn’t really listen to anything we said. Once he picked up the phone in the conference room and couldn’t remember how to dial out, punching numbers whac-a-mole style with a furrowed brow, spitting, “Why – can’t – I – get – this – damn – thing – to – work!“. When it came to the pricing, I accidentally presented the wrong numbers and he didn’t even notice. “Fine, fine…whatever“, was his somewhat annoyed response as he rolled his chair around the room like a two-year-old. And he was a one man band – belching, clearing his throat, clicking his pen, tapping on the table. It was painful. So yes, we secured the deal, but this was the moment I realized that smart people don’t always win.

A Systemic Problem

As employees, most worker bees tend to assume that those in charge either have better information or a superior intellect when it comes to decision making. Therefore, when edicts come down from on high you can accept that someone, somewhere, somehow made the correct choice. But if you work long enough (and you will), there will come a point in your career when you are exposed to the illogical, irrational, emotional and even unforgivable actions of an idiotic executive or board member. At this pinnacle moment of awakening one truth with rise over all others …

… sometimes morons win.

But Why?

When I was a kid I was introduced to the term, “smart enough to be dangerous”. To me, this is one of the ways stupid people can get ahead. Most of the morons I worked for were political animals who knew how to capitalize on the fear and weaknesses of others. They were bus drivers who would back over anyone who got in their way and conniving enough to hide the bodies.

Another term that’s bandied about is “Failing Upwards”, such as ABCNews.com’s piece from 2007 lambasting CEOs who channeled their inner Chris Angel to levitate to the top of the pyramid. In the article, Ken Siegel of The Impact Group offered his assessment:

The higher you go up, the less rigorous the situation becomes,” Siegel said. “Familiarity breeds some tolerance of incompetence. We typically have more excuses for those internally, and that contributes to reasons why they should be promoted.”

In his post, Why Stupid People Succeed, author Avish Parashar chalks this phenomenon up to “confidence unbounded by logic“:

“With an inability (or unwillingness) to be open-minded, see the angles, and realize that others may not think the way they do, the stupid person allows their confidence to bloom unfettered by the chains of reason. All of us smart people could learn a thing or two from the stupid.

Despite their roots in logic, most of these responses may be as unsatisfying to you as they are to me. I want to believe that business smarts and hard work pay dividends, but perhaps Parashar sums up the situation best:

“Sadly, our world is not a meritocracy. The best do not always succeed the most. This is a tough pill to swallow, because it seems so unfair. Especially to us smart folk who were taught growing up that all we had to do was do well in school and we would be fine.”

Why do you think morons win? Share your stories/thoughts below before they take over the world. Then again, it may be too late…

25 Comments

  1. Great post – I have first hand experience of this and I have two comments:
    1) A wise man once said to me that the time to leave and do your own thing is when you can’t stand dealing with the idiots above you.

    2) Large enterprise is disappointingly rife with morons that survive because their bluff and bluster fools their superiors into thinking that they know what they are doing – The sad fact is that if you say things with enough conviction, most of the time people will believe you. Bully’s and workplace psychopaths often survive because of this.

    Post a Reply
    • Great comments Matt, thanks. I think your #1 touches on one of the reasons I started my own firm. Your #2 made me laugh because I wrote a piece on this a few months ago, entitled The Definitive Response, something I’ve personally been guilty of time and time again.

      Post a Reply
  2. Interesting post Mark. I’m not sure I buy into the “morons” winning (althought that does happen), but I think the phrase “confidence unbounded by logic” is a powerful one to describe the heart of the issue. Frequently people who “win” are people who do not see the obstacles that logical people see. They create huge wreckage, but like the bad driver who causes pile-ups in intersections, the wreckage always happens just behind them. Fortune indeed favors the bold, and person who combines boldness, connectedness (who you know) and energy often ascends faster than the hard-worker who immediately sees all the obstacles and can identify why something will never work. The second guy might be more articulate and knowledgable, but huge wealth is often created by the first type, leaving the “smarter” middle-managers scratching their heads.

    Post a Reply
    • “…the hard-worker who immediately sees all the obstacles and can identify why something will never work.”

      And is often times labeled incorrectly as ‘lazy’ or a “doom-sayer”. Encumbered by “idjits” we press on…

      Post a Reply
  3. It is amazing, but there really are people like this in higher up positions. I actually ran across one a couple of years ago in a State agency. Do you think it is because these people are obsessed with working and don’t take vacations? Maybe they are morons, but they are perceived as good workers (by owners who don’t know differently) because they have a good attendance record?

    Post a Reply
    • Hmm, interesting question Batrus. Does attendance matter? I’m not certain but I will say that I have seen the sheer act of being present lead to opportunities for advancement, so maybe you’re onto something here. Maybe some others could weigh in on this!

      Post a Reply
      • pfft… he also said “state agency”… so the normal rules need not apply. Once you are in, you’re in. Catering to the mediocre, yes-man, make no waves mentality is trained and ingrained.

        Post a Reply
  4. Hi Mark!

    Thanks for referencing my post. I love your story about the “moron” exec – funny, and all too common.

    “As employees, most worker bees tend to assume that those in charge either have better information or a superior intellect when it comes to decision making” is a great line, and one that explains a lot, imho.

    Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Avish. Believe me when I say that I wish I didn’t have experience in this area.

      Post a Reply
  5. Mark, there’s a glitch in the human mind that’s been dubbed the Dunning-Krueger Effect, which goes like this: while we all think we’re above average, the worst amongst us are most likely to be most egregious in overestimating themselves.

    Couple this with the Reaganesque archetype for leadership (you know the one: bold, confident, unquestioning in his views), and you get a potent combination where the dolts, who are most likely to be bold in spite of their stupidity, come across more leaderly than smart people who hedge their comments, discuss shades of gray, and consider others’ views.

    Post a Reply
    • Interesting points Jason, thanks. For those interested in the effect you’re citing, I’ve found a good overview on Dunning-Kruger here. A good quote from there is, “It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.”

      Post a Reply
      • This sounds like a Catch-22. If I think I am good, then I am probably not. But if I am good, I don’t think I am.

        Explains alot.

        This is related to the disappointment that you felt when you learned that the big guns were not so big in the intellect department. It makes me sad, too, that believing in a meritocracy can be career-derailing. But if we really are smart (which if we think we are, we are not via the Dunning-Kruger Catch 22), we would spend more time building those effective glad-handing skills. The smart person who can work a crowd is the real diamond. I am still working on that. (But maybe I have already mastered it, but just don’t know it– The Dunning-Kruger Catch 22).

        Great post, Mark.

        Post a Reply
  6. The notion that lesser folks sometimes outpace smarter folks invites definition of “lesser” and “smart.” A few years ago, phychologists were talking about intelligence as a composit of capabilities in several domains — mathematical, linguistic, social, spacial, etc. Might it be that technicaly superior folks we’ve known may have lost out to less technically competent folks because the less technically competent possessed stronger verbal ability or social intelligence? Maybe we do live in a meritocracy — we just need to define the “merit” of interest to see it.
    There’s a time dimension to consider as well. When we conclude that a less competent person has triumphed over a more competent one, I tend to add, “for now.”

    Post a Reply
    • I really like the “for now” sentiment Joe and agree that social intelligence may be a grossly underestimated asset in most corporate cultures. I had a colleague who would return from drinks with his executive team screaming with frustration because his less-skilled peer “Jimmy” spent all night bending their ears with his “asinine” stories. And when push to came to shove, Jimmy got the promotion (shocker). Thanks for the comments.

      Post a Reply
      • A seemingly interesting parallel frequently is on display in the game of Survivor, where more productive, but less socially adept players are often eliminated early. Which makes a whole lot of sense if your strengths are in the social realm. You have to level the playing field if you will, by removing the productive performer early and change the game to fit your strengths.

        Post a Reply
  7. Many times I think the Moron / Incompentent boss got to be boss by the old rule of it’s not what you know, but who you know (or nose) or are related to.

    Post a Reply
    • Your point is well taken Bet and that’s why I think relationships really do matter. If everything else were equal but you personally knew a candidate for promotion, who would you choose? Thanks for your thoughts.

      Post a Reply
  8. I have come to recognize that there is a point where intelligence is a liability. At my company (a Fortune 500 company), those with intelligence become “uninvited” to meetings. I watched a newly hired Director (specialist in his field) be uninvited to meeting and told at others to sit and keep his mouth shut. He was wallpaper to add to the credibility of the VP. He left after 2 years of it. Others in the division who have intelligence are pigeon-holed and pulled out to rescue the division when it is starting to fall apart only to be sholved back into the pigeon-hole until the next crisis. They are paid high enough to keep them from looking elsewhere without sacrificing much, but never allowed to promote.

    I guess my point is that Peter Principle People (PPP) in power usually know that they are not fit for the job. They are constantly afraid that someone will expose them as wearing no clothes and band together with other PPP’s to create an intelligence ceiling, allowing none to rise that will potentially outshine them.

    Post a Reply
    • Great examples of the “smart enough to be dangerous” that I was citing in the post Jim. I feel for your colleagues who simply want to be recognized for their contribution and not play games or politics. My sense is that these restricted individuals will quit the moment they have a viable option elsewhere, something that is scaring the hell out of employers everywhere as we start to emerge from the recession.

      Post a Reply
  9. Another great post Mark- a few great ones get through-

    I have seen a lot of what you are referring to and it is the difference between a firm being ok and great- !

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Debbie. I wish we had a means of screening for this sort of behavior but I think it’s difficult to assess until you’re living the culture day in and day out. Like I said to you on Twitter, I really wish I had my former naiveté as this is something I can’t “unsee”.

      Post a Reply
  10. Seven years ago a New Zealand local hospital mistakenly published our business phone/fax number as that of their Super Clinic. Within days our phone lines were tied up with calls which ultimately nearly ruined our business. It took almost a year for them to admit their mistake. And once they did attempt to rectify the error, the same office once again mistakenly published our business number as that of their Super Clinic! The endless calls and faxes-in-error included frequent intimate and urgent surgical information about patients (often awaiting immediate surgery) but incorrectly sent to us, the local florist. Scores of time-consuming but useless calls from us to a chain of supposedly intelligent administrative superiors brought no resolution. In fact, repeatedly we were attacked, verbally abused and victimized by not only the reception staff and administration, but even doctors who personally set aside their work to come to the phone and abuse us for “not knowing what we were talking about”. We were even told that WE were the ones with the wrong number! This was not from just the one hospital at fault but from clinics and practices countrywide! In the end we finally had to personally consult almost every medical practice in the country, one after another, and personally give them the correct number they were attempting to reach. It took seven years!!! When it was all over (?) we were firmly convinced with conclusive evidence that we live in a world of incredibly stupid monkeys with absolutely no idea what they are doing, who apparently get by more on intimidation than knowledge. Our only real hope is that someday a God-blessed tsunami might do the world a favour and sink this place and all those idiots back into the ocean from which they once slithered.

    Post a Reply
    • This idea has been around since at least the late 60′s and was published is a book called “The Peter Principle” by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull.

      Post a Reply
  11. They may not be business savvy- but rest assured, they are not stupid. They are master manipulators. They have learned who they needed to befriend to get to where they are. They have mastered the fine art of doing just enough to make it look like they are working hard. They can pick out those stars who’s ideas they can utilize to benefit themselves. They know how to work the system to give the appearance that they are over worked and bring so much to the organization. We all sit back and wonder how those above them can allow themselves to be fooled by this behavior.

    Post a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Straight assassination through sarcasm… - [...] read something that really resonated with me. It’s a short article about why morons sometimes win. And the article …
  2. Why morons sometimes win… « Straight assassination through sarcasm… - [...] I read something that really resonated with me. It’s a short article about why morons sometimes win. And …
  3. Getting in the Autumn Groove | Sylvia Lafair's Blog - [...] Stelzner, with  Why Morons Win posted at Inflexion [...]
  4. Getting in the Autumn Groove | Sylvia Lafair - Elegant Leadership - [...] Stelzner, with  Why Morons Win posted at Inflexion [...]
  5. The Leadership Blog Carnival: Take a spin | RoundtableTalk - [...] Stelzner, with  Why Morons Win posted at Inflexion [...]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>