A senior executive is presenting a quarterly update. The room is packed with staff eager to hear how the firm is performing and what’s looming on the horizon. The executive begins by taking the stage and working through a thick PowerPoint deck, each slide packed with the latest business buzzwords. As the minutes tick by, I see the audience slump back in their chairs. One by one, they pull out their phones. By the time the executive invites questions, I have jotted down over 60 different examples of vacuous management-speak. As the crowd files out, I overhear one dispirited person say to their friend, “That was just so much bullshit.”
According to Princeton philosopher Henry Frankfurt, bullshit is “talking without respect to the truth.” In other words, bullshit is hollow talk that refers to nothing. This group of employees, hoping to learn something about the state of their company, had just sat through hours of it.
Of course, they’re not alone. Having studied organizations up close for two decades, I know businesspeople fall prey to meaningless jargon from time to time. I also knew that while this might satisfy a momentary need, empty talk usually winds up annoying bosses, team members, and clients. In best-case scenarios, this management piffle can crowd out more-important issues. At its worst, companies begin to believe their own bullshit, resulting in entire strategies based on a fantasy.
What can be done? Historically, there are three main ways people have attempted to deal with bullshit. One of the most popular is to simply to laugh at it. The movie Office Space is a great example, as are downloadable bullshit bingo cards you can pass out at your next meeting (yes, these exist). Cracking a joke serves to take some of the authority away from empty buzzwords. However, there is a risk that once people have had a good laugh, they’ll let out a long sigh and nothing will change.
A second response is to try to harness bullshit for your own ends. Recently, the CIA released a short document from 1944 titled Simple Sabotage Field Manual, designed to advise partisans in Europe about effective ways of resisting Nazi rule. Many of the tips inside are timeless. For instance, the manual suggests rebellious managers should “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.” While this kind of business bullshit may be a great way to stop an organization from getting things done, it’s obviously less useful in an organization that has good goals but has lost its way.
The third way of dealing with business bullshit is to try to ban it altogether. While he was director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke gave employees yellow cards to hold up in meetings with the words “Cut the crap, make it happen” printed on them. One the core values of the Australian software firm Atlassian is “Open company, no bullshit.” And during his time as the British prime minister, David Cameron launched an assault on jargon in the civil service. These campaigns against bullshit made for great headlines, but did not always reduce management jargon.
In Cameron’s case, one of his ministers, Michael Gove, circulated a lengthy letter to a civil servant explaining how to write clearly and succinctly. The letter, at least in my view, was a self-defeating exercise. One (very long) sentence reads, “Of course, on occasion, some factual detail, such as the inadvisability of ending a sentence with a preposition or the folly of using impact as a verb or even the ugliness of behaviors as a usage when behaviors covers a variety of human activity, might require a complex longer sentence.” Some civil servants saw it as evidence of even more jargon, a good reminder of how well-meaning anti-bullshit drives can backfire.
If laughing at it, harnessing it, and banning it don’t work, what can be done about bullshit at work? We need to get to the root of the problem: addressing the wider economy of bullshit.
This starts by investigating which parts of your organization are hollow and hold little value. Start with jobs themselves, and I don’t mean by eliminating them. Rather, ask how to make these jobs more meaningful. Recent research by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden shows that people find their work meaningful when four factors are in place. First, they must feel they are contributing to the core purpose of their organization. Second, people are able to craft their job so that it makes a significant contribution. Third, their tedious tasks are kept to a minimum (polling finds that U.S. workers spend 55% of their time in meetings, on email, and dealing with administrative tasks and interruptions). And finally, jobs are seen as less empty when employees see people benefiting from their work. If these elements are present, employees may be less likely to try to create pseudo-meaning at work by filling the hollowness of their job with something — anything.
The second step in addressing the economy of bullshit is to slow down its circulation. To do this, people need to ask three crucial questions about ideas at work. When a new plan is proposed, they should ask, “What is the evidence for this?” Posing this question will force others to look into the facts and weigh the evidence about whether a proposal will work. Next, people need to ask, “How will this work?” By voicing this question, you can test out the logic of an idea. A study by psychologists at Yale shows why this is important. The researchers started out by asking subjects how much they knew about everyday objects like toilets. Naturally, most people thought they were experts. Next, the subjects were asked to described in as much detail as possible how a toilet actually works. After puzzling over this question, they were asked again to rate their knowledge about toilets. Unsurprisingly, these self-declared experts suddenly realized they were not as smart as they thought they were.
You can also slow down the circulation of bullshit by asking, “What does that mean?” This question forces people to put grand ideas into as simple and straightforward language as possible.
The final step in pushing back against bullshit is to limit its consumption. Often managers are keen on initiating empty business ideas because they don’t have to live with the consequences. If they were actually charged with the messy work of implementing the idea, they might think twice before giving it a nod. To stop this from happening, organizations could introduce a rule that if you propose an idea, you have to take charge of implementing it.
Another dangerous tendency is the fact that managers endlessly add new initiatives without ever being asked to complete or kill off older ones. One way to stop this from happening is to introduce the rule of “one in, one out”: For any new management initiative to be introduced, you need to kill off one initiative. Following this would force executives to properly focus on a limited range of ideas with substance.
All of this said, it would be unwise to eliminate all bullshit (or what may seem like bullshit) from organizations. Professionals sometimes need highly technical terms to get their job done. For instance, it would be impossible for a doctor to perform surgery without resorting to some medical jargon. “Shooting the shit” or talking about the weather during a coffee break can sometimes create connections, and loose talk between two colleagues over lunch could help to ignite novel ways of seeing a business problem. But we need to learn to recognize the difference between this and the jargon that simply fills up corporate air time. The latter has got to go.