At Thinkergy, a mantra we use to help us live up to our values is this: “No bullshit.” I hope you’re not offended because bullshit kills innovation, so it’s important to understand what it is, how it works against innovation, and how you can deal with a culture that breeds and tolerates bullshit.
What is bullshit?
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” said the American moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Bullshit is stupid or untrue talk or writing. A person producing bullshit — that is, a bullshitter — is just speaking or writing hot air.
Frankfurt describes it as follows:
“When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent.”
What drives people to bullshit?
In their book, Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense, the management professors Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles say, “Bullshit is to be expected whenever someone feels impelled by the situation to say something profound but lacks entirely the knowledge to do so.” Faced with an overlong silence in a meeting or a question to which they don’t know the answer, bullshitters speak nonsense, hoping to save face and avoid revealing their lack of knowledge.
What’s your organization’s bullshit quotient (BQ)?
Sadly, there’s no standard measure of BQ. But it’s easy to get a sense of how bad things are. Just ask this: What percentage of discussions — meetings, emails, and conversations — produce only hot air rather than tangible results?
Bullshit happens everywhere in an organization, but it is most common among those subject to the Peter Principle, which says, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.” When someone is promoted to a role they lack the knowledge and skills to fulfill, they start spewing bullshit to hide that fact.
Other factors can make this worse, as in Asia, where people may utter nonsensical fluff to “save face,” and the values of harmony and respect for those more senior mean that listeners will “show consideration” by not calling the bullshit by name.
Is bullshit less harmful than lies?
Goddard and Eccles point out that liars know the truth but corrupt it to deceive others. Bullshitters, on the other hand, don’t care about the truth. They only want to paper over something they find uncomfortable. Thus, bullshit indicates a lack of character.
Elie Wiesel said that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Similarly, the opposite of the truth is not a lie — it’s bullshit, which hides the bullshitter’s intentions and motives and comes from a perspective that isn’t accurate. This makes bullshit a major obstacle to innovation.
How bullshit stands in the way of innovation
Today’s business environment encourages bullshit:
- The faster things change, the more difficult it is for people to keep their knowledge current.
- The less people know about something, the more bullshit is to be expected.
- The more people are concerned with saving face, the more bullshit is to be expected.
- The more an organization encourages pretense and politics over the truth, the higher its BQ.
- The higher the BQ of an organization, the less likely it is able to produce meaningful innovation.
How does bullshit work against innovation?
Innovation starts with awareness, both of what you know and what you don’t know. Closing gaps in your knowledge leads to insights and a better understanding of your challenge, leading to the novel, unique and meaningful ideas that are the seeds of innovation. But if that awareness of the truth is replaced by bullshit, the innovation process can only produce more bullshit.
How to survive bullshit?
If you find yourself surrounded by bullshit, here’s how to survive it, or, better, to lead your organization away from it:
- Don’t be a bullshitter. If you don’t know about a subject and can’t sensibly contribute to a discussion, keep silent. If someone asks you a question about the topic, dare to say, “I don’t know.”
- When you catch someone bullshitting, say so. If “that’s bullshit” is too harsh, you can use Guy Kawasaki’s term “Bull Shiitake” or say, “That’s just a lot of hot air.” If the bullshitter hits back, ask for evidence that what they’re saying is accurate and useful. However, if the bullshitter is your boss, and this is an isolated incident, then maybe you should bite your tongue.
- When starting a project, have the whole team discuss and record what you don’t know.
- What if bullshitting is a cherished practice in your organization? Then you’re better off leaving, sooner rather than later. Organizations full of bullshit cannot innovate and will not flourish in the innovation economy. After all, what can you expect from an organization with a high BQ? A steady stream of fresh bullshit.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2014. This article was co-published in the Bangkok Post on 23.10.2014.