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Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit [Top 100 research & commentary of 2020]

This article is part 10 of a series reviewing selected papers and associated commentary from Altmetric’s list of the top 100 most discussed and shared research and commentary of 2020.

In the #81 article1 in Altmetric’s top 100 list for 2020, McCarthy and colleagues put forward a framework aimed at assisting organisations to understand how deal with the phenomena of “workplace bullshit.” The article begins by defining bullshit and explaining the distinctions between bullshit and other forms of misrepresentation, and then introduces the four-step sequential framework.

Bullshit isn’t lying

Workplace bullshit is defined as taking place when colleagues make statements at work with no regard for the truth. Together with its associated terms “bullshitter” and “bullshitting,” the term bullshit encompasses both the act of communication (“to bullshit”) and the information in it (“that’s bullshit”).

McCarthy and colleagues advise that bullshit is a form of misrepresentation that differs from lying. They state that:

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.

For example, if an organizational leader informs employees that a proposed strategic change will not result in job losses when they know that there will be job losses, then they are lying. If, on the other hand, they say that there will be no job losses when they have no idea whether or not there will be job losses, then they are bullshitting.

McCarthy and colleagues also distinguish workplace bullshit from other forms of bullshit and misrepresentation:

  • Bullshit jobs – Meaningless or pointless jobs that are so unnecessary and non-value-adding that even the employee would struggle to justify their need.
  • Fake news – News articles, pictures, and reviews that are intentionally and verifiably false and that could mislead audiences.
  • Fake company slogans – Slogans that do not truly reflect a company’s value proposition (e.g., promised benefits to customers) and values (e.g., practices and culture).
  • Political bullshit (a.k.a. post-truth politics) – Statements by politicians that are not triangulated in relation to the truth and without concern for the veracity of the statement in question.
  • Marketing bullshit (a.k.a. puffery) – Exaggerated or false claims by marketers that amplify the features and performance of a product or service.
  • Jargon bullshit – Words or expressions used by a particular profession or group to make something seem legitimate and enticing, while also muddling language and thinking.
  • Workplace deviance – The deliberate desire to cause harm to a workplace through acts such as lying, cheating, and stealing.
  • Workplace lying – Dishonesty and untruthfulness in the workplace.
  • Workplace bullshit – When colleagues make statements in any form (e.g., written, spoken, or graphical) at work and without regard for the truth.

The CRAP framework

McCarthy and colleagues’ four-step sequential framework for understanding how to deal with workplace bullshit appropriately uses the acronym CRAP:

  1. Comprehend workplace bullshit.
  2. Recognize workplace bullshit.
  3. Act against workplace bullshit.
  4. Prevent workplace bullshit from occurring.

Key aspects of each step are summarised in Figure 1.

CRAP Framework
Figure 1. CRAP Framework (source: McCarthy et al. 2020),

What does this mean for knowledge management?

The focus of knowledge management (KM) tends to be on knowledge processes, rather than being concerned with the quality of the knowledge that is being managed. However, a 2017 paper2 looking at knowledge management and leadership alerts that:

in times of “fake-news” and “alternative facts” the validation of knowledge is getting more important. Managing knowledge on a process level is not enough.

Indeed, if organisational KM activities don’t include the validation of the knowledge being managed, then these KM activities can facilitate the sharing, storage, and use of workplace bullshit. This is obviously extremely undesirable.

Further, the KM community also needs to guard against KM being a form of what another recent paper3 describes as “bullshit management (BSM)”:

[There are] two main meanings of “bullshit management”. The first one is “humbug” language in business practice and the second is pseudo-scientific discourse in management theory …

Several areas of the management discourse include texts and organisational practices that could be classified as [containing] BS, but this does not mean that the cognitive or practical value of the whole [discourse] is called into question. [Research shows that g]ood examples of BSM in this case are connected to … knowledge management, organisational culture, project management, marketing, TQM, and strategic management …

The concept of BSM can play the role of a kind of Occam’s razor in management, which might lead to ‘cutting out’ many overblown, intellectually empty management theories and techniques.

Both the need to avoid managing knowledge that is workplace bullshit and the need to avoid KM activities that are bullshit management reinforce the need for evidence-based practice rather than opinion-based practice in KM. As I advised in a recent International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) Singapore Chapter virtual panel session, bullshit is one of (at least) three ways that opinion-based practice can manifest in KM.

References:

  1. McCarthy, I. P., Hannah, D., Pitt, L. F., & McCarthy, J. M. (2020). Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit. Business Horizons, 63(3), 253-263.
  2. Winkler, K., & Wagner, B. (2017). The relevance of knowledge management in the context of leadership. Journal of Applied Leadership and Management, 5, 104-110.
  3. Sułkowski, L. (2019). On bullshit management – the critical management studies perspective. Economics and Sociology, 12(1), 302-312. doi:10.14254/2071-789X.2019/12-1/18

Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management consultant. He holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction, and his expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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