“Organizational bullshit” is a term coined to describe deceptive, vague, or otherwise misleading communication within an organization. “Organizational bullshit” is not an expletive. It is a legitimate academic term and the subject of serious and growing academic research on leadership. In his 1986 essay, “On Bullshit,” which later developed into a book by the same name, Princeton philosopher, Harry G. Frankfurt, was the first to look at the phenomenon through a more analytical lens, making it something that can be identified and, therefore, addressed.
Frankfurt proposed that bullshit is different from lying. Unlike a liar that intentionally subverts the truth, a bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth as long as they can further their own interests. Bullshitting is mostly a mix of exaggeration, inflation, misinformation, misdirection, and invention. It manifests itself, for example, as: exaggerated performance claims; vague jargon or buzzwords; misleading communication about company policies or strategies; promotion of superficial, feel-good initiatives with no real substance; and so on.
According to André Spicer, who wrote the book on business bullshit:
“Bullshitters do not lie. They don’t try to cover up the gap between what they are saying and how things really are. Bullshitters are indifferent to how things really are. They don’t care about whether their claims conflict with reality. All they care about is whether people will listen.”
As a result of this vagueness of bullshit, we usually don’t deal with it. We ignore it or tolerate it, often with a mixture of frustration and resignation. By not challenging it, we are now dealing with a pandemic of organizational bullshit. It has become an all-too-common phenomenon in today’s corporate world.
The problem is, organizational bullshit creates a culture of dishonesty and manipulation, ultimately eroding trust and undermining organizational effectiveness.
When employees are consistently exposed to organizational bullshit, they may become skeptical of the information they receive, leading to a breakdown in trust between employees and management. This loss of trust can negatively impact employee morale, productivity, and loyalty to the organization.
Organizational bullshit can suppress critical thinking and dissent by creating an environment where employees feel compelled to conform to the company’s narrative, even if they disagree with it or find it misleading. This can lead to groupthink, where employees prioritize consensus over critical analysis, resulting in suboptimal decision-making and stifled innovation.
When employees perceive that their organization is engaging in bullshit, they may become disillusioned and disengaged. This disengagement can result in reduced productivity, higher turnover, and lower overall job satisfaction, all of which can be costly and detrimental to a company’s success.
Organizations that engage in bullshit risk damaging their reputation and brand. In today’s interconnected world, such practices can quickly become public knowledge, leading to a loss of credibility among customers, partners, and potential hires.
Some of the key approaches to reducing organizational bullshit include:
Cultivate a culture of transparency and honesty where employees feel comfortable questioning the status quo and expressing their concerns without fear of reprisal. This includes fostering open communication channels, encouraging critical thinking, and promoting a genuine commitment to ethical behaviour.
Eliminate jargon and buzzwords to reduce the likelihood of creating an environment where bullshit thrives. Companies should emphasize clear, concise, and accurate communication that is easily understood by all employees.
Hold leaders accountable for setting the tone for their company’s culture. Employees should be encouraged to hold their leaders accountable for their actions and decisions, ensuring that they model honesty, transparency, and ethical behaviour.
Provide training and support to help employees recognize and address organizational bullshit. This might include workshops on critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and effective communication, as well as access to resources and tools that promote a culture of honesty and transparency.
Monitor and address organizational bullshit for signs of bullshit, and take corrective action as needed. This may involve revising company policies, reevaluating performance metrics, or implementing new communication strategies that prioritize clarity and accuracy.
Organizational bullshit is a pervasive and insidious problem that can have far-reaching negative consequences for both companies and their employees. By recognizing and addressing the issue, organizations can foster a culture of honesty, transparency, and critical thinking that not only benefits their employees but also contributes to their long-term success and competitiveness. It’s time for organizations to cut through the bullshit and commit to genuine, honest communication that fosters trust, engagement, and innovation.
For over 30 years, Marin Ivezic has been protecting critical infrastructure and financial services against cyber, financial crime and regulatory risks posed by complex and emerging technologies.
He held multiple interim CISO and technology leadership roles in Global 2000 companies.