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Corporate Bullsh*t

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The skill of spotting false information - rubbish, hogwash, trumpery and, yes, even fake news — is so important these days that scientists have begun serious research on it. They’re attempting to quantify when and why people spread it, who is susceptible to it, how it affects them, and how people can confront it.

According to the philosopher and Princeton emeritus professor Harry Frankfurt in his now-classic 2005 book “On Bullshit”, liars at least acknowledge truth exists, bullsh*tters don't care. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies.

Corporate Bullsh*t

Corporate bullsh*t can have a net positive effect, for example when leaders communicate a vague but inspiring future and employees rally around the vision. This is known as a handy supply of manure for fertilizing new ideas and innovation.

However, corporate bullsh*t has several negative effects on both employees and organizations:

  • Lower job satisfaction,
  • Distrust in leadership,
  • Reduction in productivity (slower to make decisions), and
  • Poorer quality decisions

The most detrimental consequence of organizational bullsh*t is the corrosion of organizational decision-making.

Defining Corporate Bullsh*t

Recent reseach created the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale (OBPS). The scale is designed to gauge perceptions of the extent of organizational bullsh*t that exists in a workplace. The research revealed three key factors of organizational bullsh*t:

Factor 1. Bullsh*t Tolerance

The tolerance for bullsh*t seems to be stronger - more pervasive and more accepted - in some organizations than others. This variation is likely to be reflected in the extent to which an organization has a culture of seeking and using evidence to support statements, as opposed to it being more commonplace for employees and leaders to rely on hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences and opinions when making decisions or persuading others to their points of view. Does the organization reward, accept, ignore, or challenge bullsh*t statements?

Employees are exceptionally tuned to recognize bullsh*t and this is a source of frustration for many of them. While organizational disregard for the truth may be accepted under certain circumstances, such disregard may lead to organizations making more questionable decisions that could alienate employees. Worse, management could actually believe the bullsh*t, and that could ultimately put everyone's jobs at risk by endangering the welfare of the company.

We can measure factor 1 by measuring the extent to which employees believe their organization has a culture that expects workplace statements and discussions to be grounded in truth and be supported by evidence and data.

Factor 2. Leadership Bullsh*t

The second factor concerns the communication behavior of high-status individuals in organizations. Since leaders are the most important and influential bullsh*tters in organizations, we should measure subordinates’ perceptions of whether their bosses tend to engage in bullsh*t-related practices.

Employees believe that their superiors are key players in the dissemination of corporate bullsh*t. Further, employees are likely to have to act based on any bullsh*t communicated by their bosses. As a result, employees are acutely aware when their superiors use bullsh*t to advance their own self-interests.

“We’re really excited about... (the thing that no one in history has ever been excited about)”

- Delivered in a joyless monotone

Bullsh*t flows both ways, however. There is a simple heuristic as a boss: Are you only hearing good news? That's bad news.

Those at the bottom of an organization have a fairly accurate view of what’s going on. They’re close to the detail; they know what's what. Those at the top must rely on the bubbling-up of information from below, a process that creates layers of bullsh*t. Individual contributors present a rosy picture of what they are working on to their line managers; who then bullsh*t their bosses; and so on.

By the time you are a senior leader you should know this pattern. It's your job to discover the truth despite this tendency. If your company puts more emphasis on reputation than truth; rewards good news and punishes bad; forces loyalty on its employees rather than a desire to do the right thing; then it's leadership's fault if they are being fed bullsh*t.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”

- Harry Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University

Factor 3. Bullsh*t Language

Bullsh*t typically contains language that is meant to enhance the credibility of a bullsh*tter, while at the same time trying to flummox others so they are unable or unwilling to try to penetrate to the lack of truth behind the bullsh*t.

Corporate jargon is one example of organizational bullsh*t language, whereby words or expressions are used in an attempt to legitimize something, whilst at the same time using confusing language and thinking. We all know corporate bullsh*t expressions when we hear them such as “architect plug-and-play functionalities”, “drive upstream convergence”, “exploit bricks-and-clicks channels”, or “disintermediate back-end communities”.

Expressions courtesy of the Bullshit Generator.

Corporate speak is littered with TLAs (three letter acronyms). Things have many different names that essentially mean the same thing but indicate status and inside knowledge. A new product for example may have a code name, a project name to launch it, an "insider reference" name, and an external name for public use. Which name is used internally can project either status (for those in know), or bullsh*t.

Employees who are bullsh*t targets are less likely to ask questions, or challenge, when they find it difficult to understand what has been said. Bullsh*t language therefore goes beyond what is said, but also incorporates how it is said – both components compound the actions of bullsh*tters.

Employees know that the excessive use of such language is a form of bullsh*t. They sense if a statement is riddled with meaningless language, acronyms, buzzwords, and jargon, then it is very likely to be bullsh*t. They also highly respect managers that protect them from bullsh*t - describing a good manager as a "bullsh*t umbrella", and a bad manager as a "bullsh*t funnel".

Measuring Corporate Bullsh*t

Scale itemF1F2F3
1. Evidence must be presented to support decisions made. (1) (R)0.79
2. People often make assertions that they cannot support. (1)0.61
3. It is easy to get access to the data I need to make good decisions. (1) (R)0.62
4. When making decisions we place more emphasis on evidence than on personal opinions. (1) (R)0.79
5. You can persuade people to do things even if the evidence doesn’t support your arguments. (1)0.62
6. People take the time to gather and analyze data before making decisions. (1) (R)0.76
7. If you want to get ahead just keep insisting that everything is going great, even if the evidence says something different.0.58
8. My boss will say whatever it takes to pursue their agenda.0.82
9. When my boss speaks, they usually back up their opinions with logic.(R)0.73
10. My boss often says things that may or may not be true.0.83
11. Even when people don’t know what they are talking about, my boss will often go along with their suggestions.0.63
12. My boss loves to use acronyms.0.70
13. My boss loves to use jargon.0.64
14. People use jargon far too often. (1)0.80
15. People use acronyms far too often. (1)0.88

(1) indicates all these items were prefaced with “In our organization. . .”.
(R) indicates that the item was reverse-coded.

Responding to Corporate Bullsh*t

Employees are attuned to the presence of bullsh*t in organizations, and their attitudes, beliefs, and actions are likely to be influenced by it. In the workplace there are three responses from individuals that work to promote or hinder the prevalence of organizational bullsh*t:

  • Disengage (they try to escape the bullsh*t, or simply disengage from the bullsh*t),
  • Challenge (they confront the bullsh*t), or
  • Loyalty (they embrace and spread the bullsh*t)

The OBPS provides a simple checklist to diagnose both the actual prevalence of organizational bullsh*t, as well as the extent to which employees believe it is present in an organization. The tool also enables the identification of more specific areas in which bullsh*t might be a cause of problems so that these can then be addressed:

  • Does communication in the organization occur without regard for evidence?
  • Do senior executives purvey bullsh*t in their communication?
  • Is there excessive use of acronyms (e.g. CPC, LBH, NBD) and jargon?

If these conditions are be identified, strategies can be developed and employed for remedying them!

Dr. Jevin West is a professor of information science at the University of Washington who co-created a class at the university, “Calling Bullshit,” that teaches students how to spot and refute the way data, such as statistics and charts, can be manipulated to make false arguments. More than 60 schools have requested permission to use the materials to set up classes of their own and the material was crafted into a book published in April of 2021.

References

Side Note: "Trumpery" is a real word. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary Trumpery derives from the Middle English trompery and ultimately from the Middle French tromper, meaning "to deceive." (You can see the meaning of this root reflected in the French phrase "trompe-l'oeil", literally, "deceives the eye"). Trumpery first appeared in English in the mid-15th century with the meanings "deceit or fraud" and "worthless nonsense."

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