Brain power

We bullshit at work to fit into our professional community

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Bullshitting at work seldom seems like something to be encouraged, but new research1 from the Business School (formerly Cass) suggests it may have a crucial social role to play.

The paper explains that when a community shares a common language, such as a professional community with a shared jargon, bullshitting can often be encouraged because it can help to reinforce the identity of the group.  What’s more, it can also help to negotiate practical challenges and help to ensure work is completed effectively.

Routine practice

This can all help to make bullshitting a somewhat routine practice in many organizations.  It’s a process that the paper suggests is underpinned by three key things:

  1. Conceptual entrepreneurs – who the author refers to as people who are in the “ideas industry”. Think of people like thought leaders or management consultants.  If there are a large number of these in a community then bullshitting is likely to rise.
  2. Noisy ignorance – When we’re compelled to talk about something we lack knowledge in, this can encourage bullshitting. The author cites the example of middle managers who don’t really know what their team is working on but have to talk to their boss about it nonetheless.
  3. Permissive uncertainty – People who don’t really know what to do and are quite happy to consider anything to plug that gap. The paper cites the number of AI “experts” that have emerged as the technology has hit the mainstream.

Negative consequences

Of course, there can be a range of negative consequences to such behavior, with the paper highlighting how it can build mistrust and avoidance from colleagues while also eroding the identity of the bullshitter themselves.

As such, there is a risk that bullshitting becomes a part of the very culture of an organization, which in turn reinforces the likelihood that it will become commonplace and accepted.  To avoid this fate, organizations can reflect on the language they use and attempt to reduce the amount of jargon, while also being extremely vigilant in fact-checking and calling out bullshitting when they encounter it.

“While there are positive and negative consequences, the use of bullsh*tting is one that must be carefully considered, and it can be a slippery slope for individuals and organizations,” the author concludes.

“Although it can come down to personal choice or poor reasoning, bullsh*t can be perpetuated by an environment. It is the responsibility of the employer to encourage transparency and open and honest work environments to ensure the practice doesn’t spread out of control and lead into a trap that can be hard to climb out of.”

Article source: We Bullshit At Work To Fit Into Our Professional Community.

Header image source: iStock.

Reference:

  1. Spicer, A. (2020). Playing the bullshit game: How empty and misleading communication takes over organizations. Organization Theory, 1. DOI: 10.1177/2631787720929704.

Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and Work.com, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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