Read Part 1: Why
Part 2: How
One day, sitting in the shed he called home, the journalist, Oobah Butler, had an idea: he would turn his shed into a fake restaurant and make it the top-rated eatery in London. This audacious thought wasn’t random, though. Before becoming a feature writer for VICE.com, one of Butler’s part-time jobs had been as a review writer. But not just any reviews – these were fake reviews on TripAdvisor paid for by establishments who wanted to improve their business ratings. As he became more entrenched in this work and watched his reviews have real-world effects on restaurant rankings, Butler began to doubt the reality of the whole system, believing that it was all fake, from the reviews to the food, even the restaurants themselves. But surely that couldn’t be possible? Surely one couldn’t fake a physical place? And, if it were possible, wouldn’t that prove that the entire construct was an illusion?
Butler would later acknowledge that the vast majority of restaurants and reviews in the industry are legitimate, but not before he put his suspicions to the test. Over the course of just six months, he managed to get The Shed at Dulwich – a restaurant that didn’t exist – to rise from a ranking of 18,149 on TripAdvisor, perhaps the internet’s most trusted reviews site, to become the number one place to eat in London, one of the world’s biggest cities. How he did this is amusing, impressive, and appalling in equal measure, but he ultimately proved his point: it’s all bullshit.
In Part 1 of this series I introduced bullshit as something that has crept into every corner of society, including business. Especially business. I showed how the word has evolved from vulgar language to an academically-credible term used to describe a growing body of research. In that article, we explored the nature of bullshit, its impact on business, and why it needs to be eliminated. We concluded that corporate bullshit is essentially a moral challenge that requires us to stand up for what’s right. Some of the negative consequences of bullshit include a decrease in job satisfaction, decline in productivity and job performance, ineffective decision-making, growing mistrust in leadership, and a reduction in the authenticity needed for strong interpersonal relationships.
Even if an organization and the careers of those therein are built on bullshit, and everyone is happy with the arrangement, the value generated by that system is significantly sub-optimal. The client, the customer, or society or the environment inevitably suffers.
If you operate from the moral premise that your role at work is to deliver the most value you can – that is, if you believe that providing value is the right thing to do – then bullshit is wrong. It is a hindrance at a time when the world has some major problems to solve. The stakes are even higher in my particular area of focus, cyber-kinetic security. If the work delivered is not up to scratch, cyber-physical systems become vulnerable to attack, and lives are put at risk. In Part 1 of this series, then, we looked at WHY organizational bullshit needs to be done away with; in this article, we look at HOW.
Fighting bullshit with C.R.A.P
In their February 2020 paper, Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit, McCarthy, Hannah, Pitt, and McCarthy propose a step-by-step approach to dealing with workplace bullshit. Appropriately titled C.R.A.P, the framework is more serious than it sounds, mapping out the four basic steps to neutralizing an overabundance of organizational bullshit:
The first step to dealing with bullshit is to understand it. For most people, business bullshit makes perfect sense because everyone has a reference point for it, but few people think of it as an objective phenomenon. So, simply raising awareness of business bullshit – what it is, what it isn’t, how it works, and its adverse effects – can be a simple but accessible entry point for most teams and organizations. As pointed out in Part 1 of this series, there is some unexpected subtlety and nuance in this subject – distinguishing lying from bullshit, for example – and these distinctions can be very useful for individuals to understand.
Once someone understands what bullshit is, the next step is to spot it in action. Here the Boy Scouts’ motto holds true: be prepared. Look out for abstract, general language, full of jargon, or unnecessarily convoluted English. Of course, some people develop reputations for bullshit. They are expected to talk a lot of it so it’s easier to spot. More generally, though, a mindset of healthy cynicism keeps one vigilant to baseless claims, avoidance of facts and data, sloppy justification for decisions, and behavior driven by personal agendas. In my work, where cross-functional teams share different expertise, this point translates further into recognizing when people are experts in their particular area and giving that specialist knowledge weight over general opinions. Later in 2020, the same researchers who created the C.R.A.P framework also devised an Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale that measures the volume of bullshit in an organization and the degree to which it is comprehended and recognized.
Even if someone can spot bullshit-in-action, what can they do about it? Typical responses fall into one of four categories:
- Exit: The employee has had enough and leaves the team or organization to get away from the bullshit/bullshitter. For businesses trying to retain top talent, this could be one of the costliest consequences of organizational bullshit.
- Voice: Voicing occurs when employees speak up to confront bullshit, and this is where leaders have a particularly significant impact, for good and for bad. From a negative standpoint, the natural authority of leadership can make bullshitting bosses difficult to challenge. But from a positive standpoint, leaders have an outsized potential to create an environment of psychological safety where people feel comfortable questioning decisions, requesting clarification, asking for data, and holding each other accountable to agreed outcomes – all healthy ways to challenge perceived bullshit.
- Loyalty: This is a typical response to bullshit, especially when the bullshitter holds cultural or organizational power. Employees see the bullshit for what it is but still choose to accept it, often because it is the easiest route or because it serves them somehow. Effectively, though, they become accomplices to the bullshit.
- Neglect: Many people will recognize this reaction in themselves or those around them; it’s a state of willful ignorance or resignation. Employees disengage from the bullshit, the work related to the bullshit (or the bullshitter), and often the organization too; leaving (Exit) would be too costly, so the employee stays, demoralized and negative. Given how often I’ve seen this attitude in businesses, it’s no surprise that global employee engagement levels are still only at about 20%.
The final piece of the C.R.A.P framework is to prevent the creation and spread of bullshit in the workplace. This is by far the most effective way to reduce bullshit over the long term, and there are several ways to approach this:
Create environments of trust
As mentioned above, creating psychologically-safe spaces where employees can speak up is crucial to calling out and reducing bullshit. This does not even have to involve calling out bullshit; it can be as simple as a team member feeling okay to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying – please could you explain.’ Most people are afraid of looking ignorant, but in a supportive culture, people feel able to ask for clarification. If the person who’s doing the speaking is bullshitting, this simple question is usually enough to make that clear. Creating environments of trust is not a ‘woo-woo’ notion, nor is trust itself an intangible concept. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is a solid example of how trust can be a quantitatively measured factor in an organization, but by showing leaders how trusted (or distrusted) they are and augmenting this type of analysis with group contributions and dialogue, trust can begin to displace bullshit.
Encourage critical thinking
Despite what they like to believe, many organizations do not promote critical thinking, even though most people would agree it’s a vital skill for a successful business. Critical thinking takes time and consideration; it asks you to weigh up facts and evidence, look at alternative viewpoints, and question not only the thinking of those around you but also your own thinking. As such, it is the anthesis of the superficial, often eloquent but ultimately dressed-up thinking that drives bullshit. Unfortunately, the operational pressures in most businesses mean people are inclined to cut corners in thinking and skip the time required for critical assessment; this is one of the reasons bullshit thrives.
Prize evidence and expertise
A dangerous trap for any leader or manager is to begin to assume that, simply because they have experience, they know intuitively what the right decision is in any particular situation. Intuition and instinct based on experience are an essential part of leadership, but every person has blind spots, so to avoid cognitive biases (wellsprings for bullshit), it is better to rely on evidence. And, to the point above, this is necessary to create a culture of trust where people have the right to ask how a decision was made if they suspect bullshit. Also, while group input or crowdsourcing can be valuable ways to gain broad insight, they can equally muddy the waters and result in decisions based on little substance. Those with the relevant expertise in a decision area should be given a stronger voice. In my line of work, this is less of an issue – engineers, for example, seldom have problems pointing out when people are making incorrect assumptions about their area of specialism – but it is something that needs to be borne in mind, especially as more workplaces move towards cultures of democratized decision-making.
This is easier said than done and relies on a strong culture where the first three steps of this process (comprehension, recognition, and action) are already underway. Banning jargon and acronyms, for example, relies on mutual agreement and enforcement. Prohibiting bullshit-generating behavior like unnecessary meetings can be powerful. Still, again, it requires the buy-in of everyone in the team or organization. More than anything, this needs to be modeled from the top, so leaders have to embrace a bullshit-free mindset – a challenging prospect for many organizations.
Stop rewarding bullshit
As I described in the first article of this series, business bullshit is rewarded in various ways. In general, jargon, buzzwords, and bullshit language have such lasting appeal because it lends those who use it a sense of confidence and, often, status. The natural tendency for bullshitters to speak in abstract or ungrounded and aspirational terms fits well in a modern business climate that favors leaders who can talk about ‘vision’ and ‘purpose.’ Spicer suggests that one way to counter these trends is to provide alternative sources of rewards and confidence. By banning or limiting the use of buzzwords and jargon, the legitimacy of bullshit language is decreased, forcing people to seek status from actually doing their jobs well. And importantly, those jobs that receive focus and acknowledgement should include the more modest ones that ensure the business runs well, not just the ‘sexier’ jobs that tend to attract bullshit behavior. Finally, and I agree with Spicer again, organizations need to make ‘stupid’ decisions more costly by tying people to the long-term consequences of their decisions and deferring rewards/bonuses for more extended periods.
One thing I have learned as a leader is that there is no growth without humility – the willingness to admit that you don’t know. In putting together these pieces on organizational bullshit, I have tried to share some of the perspectives gained from my own experience, tempered by the growing research in this area. I certainly don’t have all the answers to fixing what I feel is a potentially toxic trend in organizations, but if we (I, my colleagues, and all of us in business) try to remain curious and committed, it will be harder for bullshit to take root, and we will be more likely have the positive impact we seek.