The Rise Of Business Bullshit – And How We Can Fight It

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this, but we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” – Harry Frankfurt  On Bullshit

Many people in the social sector will have heard about the 80/20 rule –  that 80% of the demand comes from 20% of users.

It’s one of those things that seems to intuitively make sense. If we can solve the problem of the 20% of people who are sapping all our resources – then the world would be a much better place.

Except of course….it’s bullshit.

Recent work by our own Insight team found the belief that a small group of users were responsible for a disproportionate amount of contact with us simply had no foundation.

So why do these myths – dangerous in that they lend themselves to silver bullet solutions – swirl around the modern workplace?

John V. Petrocelli is the author of a new paper which looks at the Antecedents of Bullshitting and the conditions that need to exist to encourage people to bullshit. 

First of all, bullshitting is not the same as lying, which is a deliberate and premeditated attempt to conceal the facts.

By contrast, bullshitters may or may not know what the truth is. They are simply communicating with little or no regard for evidence, established knowledge, or truth.

Petrocelli ran two experiments that revealed major factors that might cause someone to bullshit:

  • Firstly, people bullshitted most when they felt pressure to provide an opinion and believed their audience didn’t know much about the subject. Even though they may not have the knowledge or experience to have an informed opinion, the social pressure to contribute something kicked in.
  • Secondly, if there is no accountability for bullshit, it’s more likely to happen.  People appear to be more likely to bullshit when it’s perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to do without challenge.

As Petrocelli says – it seems unlikely that people are generally ready to admit to bullshitting, so it’s even more important we understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity.

So how can we stem the flow of BS and encourage people to challenge its validity?

Four Tactics That May Reduce Bullshit

Get Better At Problem Definition

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions, not finding the best problems.

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

Bullshitting is hard work. It requires the capacity to continually come up with new, over-packed, ambiguous concepts -so said Andre Spicer

As 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.”

Cp0-ruOVUAUqrhB

Meetings are 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.

Ban PowerPoint

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.


There’s one big tactic for battling bullshit that Petrocelli identifies:

Evidence.

Certainly, we’ve become much more focused on being an evidence-based organisation – as Carole Clarke writes – we increasingly need to become more rigorous in how we evaluate the impact of our services so that we can say with a lot more confidence that things work.

We need to bust myths. Slay Zombie Projects.  And wage war on jargon.

An indifference to evidence breeds an indifference to the truth.

Nudging our organisations towards a more evidence-based culture becomes the surest way to stem the flow of bullshit, if not kill it.

The Danger Of Listening To People Who Talk A Lot

Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted personKhalil Smith

Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is misplaced.

However, we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and being busy than on thinking. On doing things rather than solving the right problems.

Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.

We default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) organisational goals.

This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.

It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions.  So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out some kind of essential truth.

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get over-looked.

Iceberg2

 

The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.

Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.

Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.

Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t want to solve a problem by talking about it for hours
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.


 

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

%d bloggers like this: