If ever there was a time for critical thinking to make a comeback it’s right about now.
This post was written in week eight of the UK lockdown , 55 days in which we’ve generated more speculation, more opinion and more outright bullshit than at any other time in human history. (That statement , by the way, is also bullshit as I have no evidence for it whatsoever..)
This is the first worldwide crisis of the social media age – where mainstream media competes with podcasters and YouTubers to present the latest hot take. It’s interpreted and enhanced by a increasingly powerful citizen-led commentary on Facebook and Twitter , which provides the final version of the truth for many of our communities.
For example, coronavirus being a man-made disease designed and/or supported by Government to kill the elderly, the poor and to lower population levels isn’t just a fringe conspiracy theory. I have people in my timeline, people I’d previously thought as perfectly rational, sharing this freely.
The World Health Organisation has labelled the spread of fake news about the outbreak an “infodemic”. One thing is clear: a pandemic is no time for bullshit.
As we all begin to press the reset button and return to our schools, businesses and leisure activities it’s worth considering how misinformation is going to shape what comes next.
The people who left our offices on 20th March will not be the same when they return. They won’t want to sit at a hot desk. They won’t be making rounds of drinks for people. They may have doubts about their job security – and might even be distrustful of the actions their employer is taking to cope in this crisis.
How can corporate messaging – to our customers and our colleagues – cut through the infodemic?
Some useful pointers are contained in the most entertaining academic paper I’ve read in a whilst: Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit.
In the paper the authors, Ian McCarthy, David Hannah, Leyland Pitt and Jane McCarthy, doubt that any organisation will ever be able to rid itself of bullshit entirely, but argue that by taking a number of steps, astute leaders can work toward stemming its flood.
“Most of us would agree that our workplaces are awash with bullshit” say the authors. They contend bullshit crops up during meetings, corporate announcements and get togethers, as well as emails.
What counts as workplace bullshit?
The authors define workplace bullshit as “taking place when colleagues make statements at work with no regard for the truth”. This differs substantially from lying. “A liar is someone who is interested in the truth, knows it, and deliberately misrepresents it. In contrast, a bullshitter has no concern for the truth and does not know or care what is true or is not.”
They provide a useful example to illustrate this point of a leader informing employees that a proposed strategic change will not result in job losses.
Lying: The leader knows there will be job losses but hides or manipulates the truth. The leader is lying by stating known untruths.
Bullshitting: The leader has no idea whether there will be job losses or not, and is thus not hiding or concealing the truth. The leader is bullshitting because they neither know nor care whether their statements are true or false.
The authors provide a useful tool for us to challenge misinformation – the wonderfully titled C.R.A.P framework.
Rather than passively drown in BS we can first of all expect it – we are all bullshitters to a degree – but we can comprehend it, recognise it, act against it, and, perhaps most importantly, prevent it.
At work we’ve created the ideal petri dish for bullshit to spread. As the paper states the changing nature of communication in the corporate environment, email, video-conferencing, intranets, and shared screens, in addition to face-to-face conversations, paper memorandums, and conventional meetings provide extremely fertile ground.
I’d argue that this is exacerbated by 24/7 rolling news and social media that provides endless conversational space to fill. And the social media business model just doesn’t stack up unless that vacant space is filled – be it with truth or untruth.
Four Tactics That Might Prevent Bullshit
In a previous post I outlined a few ideas for reducing the spread of BS:
Get Better At Problem Definition:
Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation.
So we need to build a culture around asking:
- Is that really true?
- Do we honestly know that?
- Where’s the evidence on that?
Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.
Hold Fewer Meetings:
As Andre Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.
Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.
It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”
Meetings are too often opinion, rather than evidenced based.
Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion:
The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.
Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better. We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.
The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.
Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.
Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.
In Confronting Indifference the authors explore these themes more usefully and recommend that our organisations foster a culture of inviting employees to think critically— through scepticism, curiosity, and rational inquiry.
These are not always behaviours that our organisations invite. It’s a lot easier to manage a compliant herd than a questioning and curious crowd.
I’m already tired of the use of the phrase ‘new normal’ but I’m pretty certain that what comes next will require purposeful thinking and questioning on a scale we haven’t seen before.
Better solutions ultimately require better opinions.