My colleague Matthew Rich-Tolsma recently held a RISE webinar on “Business Bullshit”, where we spoke with a group of business leaders and organisational consultants about the business bullshit we experience and are a part of within our organisations. It's so easy to get caught up in terms such as "customer experience", "innovation", "disruption", "blue-sky thinking", but what is really going on? Why is it that bullshit exists within our working lives, and how is it useful and useless at the same time? In this blog, I summarise some of the key points Matthew made in the webinar and explore my own experience of bullshit,
What is bullshit?
We started by exploring the definition of bullshit, noting the difference between bullshit and lies. For example, when we're lying, we are intentionally deceiving and misleading people, yet when we're bullshitting, it's more about having a disregard for the truth; by exaggerating or downplaying certain aspects. With bullshit, we're using language that helps to advance our own interests, like making ourselves look good or covering up anxiety we may have. (There are certain political figures right now, who seem to have mastered the art of bullshit!)
Types of bullshit?
In the late '60s, Neil Postman wrote a speech called "Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection" (which seems as relevant today than ever). In this speech, he suggests four categories of bullshit:
1) Pomposity - making things seem more significant than they are to make ourselves look good. "World-class" "cutting-edge" "quantum leadership" "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" (cringe)
Bigotry - for example relating to racism or sexism. Using a bullshit argument to embed discrimination towards difference further. E.g. "the HR team are all women, that's why they are so sensitive." - I have actually heard this!
Eichmannism - named after a Nazi bureaucrat who committed mass atrocities in the Holocaust. (During his trial he was heard to say that he was just following orders and even that some of his friends were Jews, showing his complete disregard for the evilness of his actions.)
In the context of organisations, we often witness a sense of disregard; situations such as data leaks or oil spills, for example, where bullshit is used to downplay any responsibility.
3) Inanity - lots of words taking up space that don't mean much. For example, my experience of most board meetings - where people often talk just for the sake of talking without saying anything of much meaning or repeating what has already been said.
4) Superstition - ("ignorance presented in the cloak of authority.") the way we use language to cover up our ignorance or uncertainty. I have seen this too in organisations, where all of a sudden, all of the organisation's issues are down to the problem of "silos", or within a family business, all of the issues lie within the "politics of the family drama". This has the effect of reducing individual responsibility by using the label as a scapegoat and therefore not acknowledging and digging into what else is going on.
So, why do we bullshit?
If we're aware of all this, how come we still do it? Bullshit can be useful as well as limiting. When we engage in bullshit, it inhibits our ability to understand what is really going on, yet, participating in bullshit can also offer a way for people to feel a sense of belonging. I felt this when on a course recently. Everyone was using very abstract, academic words which made them sound very intelligent (my initial reaction was to smirk at how silly it all seemed, and I wished for people to drop the pretence and get real). By the end of the day, I embarrassingly noticed how my own language had subconsciously changed in order to feel accepted by the group and not come across as if I didn't know what I was talking about. I think what really sat underneath was shared insecurity and uncertainty about the topic we were discussing.
Alvesson and Gabriel talk about grandiosity and our need to look better than we might believe we are. They discuss the "widespread narcissism of our times" and the desire to be fascinating which results in organisations and individuals assuming labels such as "cutting-edge" and "internationally famous" with the intent to boost their claims of sophistication and status. This can make learning about leadership quite difficult; who wants to learn about the seemed mundanity of management or the complex, messy reality of human dynamics when they could be talking about "transformative leadership"!?! But the fact is the messy, everyday stuff is important and so these glamorous labels and fancy leadership workshops can draw us away from what might really need attention.
Andre Spicer discusses how consultants can use it to make an impression on clients. I find it can often feel like we are trying to find the most impressive articulation of what it is that we do to enforce our expertise and build our reputation to get work with clients. The problem is even if I stop doing it, others probably won't. It becomes a game of who can bullshit the best! And (this is important) it can often not just be to impress our prospective clients but to impress and convince ourselves of our ability and importance.
How can we respond to bullshit?
In Postman's "Art of Crap-Detection," he says: "at any given time the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend, is yourself." It is essential to reflect on how we are part of the daily bullshit. This requires reflexivity and an ability to honestly look at ourselves - asking how we are perpetuating the bullshit and why.
It also feels important to remain curious, humble and open. "Almost nothing is what you think it's about including yourself" (Postman). Once we start to notice our own bullshit and take it seriously, we can, with kindness and openness, begin to have conversations with those around us to talk about what it is that we're actually doing - and this might open up possibilities for change.
From my experience, speaking up about bullshit is hard. It can involve naming something uncomfortable that might risk my position in a group or frustrate a dominant figure in an organisation (such as the CEO of a client organisation). It can sometimes even feel dangerous; there's a reason why anonymous employee surveys are often where the "truth" is spoken! This reality reminds me of the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes (HC Anderson) where it is only the naivety of the child - unafraid of the influence of the Emperor that can point out that the Emperor has no clothes on.
I found this topic fascinating, and there are so many layers to explore. It has certainly raised my awareness of the bullshit I am a part of, and I hope I can continue to build my capacity and courage to name what I am noticing in the hope that it might start to change the conversation. I'd love to continue this conversation, so if you're interested, please don't hesitate to "reach out" ;)
References and further reading:
Abrahamson, E. (1996). 'Management Fashion'. Academy of Management Review, 21(1): pp.254-285.
Alvesson, M. (2013). The Triumph of Emptiness. Oxford: Oxford University press.
Alvesson, M. & Gabriel, Y. (2016). 'Grandiosity in contemporary management and education'. Management Learning, 47(4): pp. 464–473.
Frankfurt, H. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Postman, N. (1969). "Bullshit and the art of crap-detection". Keynote deliver at the National Convention for the Teachers of English [NCTE], November 28, 1969, Washington, D.C.
Postman, N. (1977). Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk: How We Defeat Ourselves by the Way We Talk and What to Do About It. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Spicer, A. (2013). 'Shooting the shit: the role of bullshit in organisations'. M@n@gement, 16(5): pp. 653-666.
Spicer, A. (2018). Business bullshit. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge.
Watson, D. (2004). Watson's dictionary of weasel words. Sydney: Random House.