I have wasted a significant portion of my life dealing with BS. Mea culpa. I decided to become a marketer and it just comes with the territory. But here’s the thing. Maybe it’s cause I’m older, maybe it’s because I’m just getting grumpier, but I’m getting less and less tolerant of BS.
After one particular day when the scent of BS hung heavy in the air, I wondered, why? Why do we have to put up with BS anyway? What would my job be like sans-BS? Trust me, it’s a liberating mental exercise. Try it.
How often, each and every day, do you have to exert extra effort, take on extra tasks, send extra emails, or have extra meetings, just because of BS? And here’s the thing: none of this extra work is productive. Zero. Zilch. It’s all just spinning our wheels, trying to move forward and get over the mound of BS in our way. In fact, in most cases, BS puts us in reverse. We lose ground because of it. I have no empirical evidence on this, but I suspect that a workplace would be at least 10 times more efficient and effective without BS.
In 2004 Bob Sutton had an epiphany when he wrote the original No Asshole Rule in the Harvest Business Review. He posed a bold question: What could a workplace be like without assholes? I pose a follow-up question: How much more productive could we be if we eliminated BS?
I’m not sure if it’s a hard and fast rule, but it seems that the degree of BS corresponds directly to the size of the company. Many small start-ups have little to no operational BS (depending on the personalities involved). In huge companies, BS is the operational norm. I think BS is naturally present in any random group of people, but at some point in a company’s growth curve, BS seems to move from being an irritation to be eradicated to being a foundational rule of engagement. BS begets BS.
All BS is not the same. Some varieties are more toxic than other. Here are some of the common types I’ve encountered.
Cover-My-Butt BS: “I screwed up and I don’t want to admit it”
This is one of the most common varieties of BS. Tremendous amounts of corporate effort are expending covering collective butts. Look, if you suck on a consistent basis, I should be able to say you suck. Even if you’re my boss.
Incompetence is poison for an organization. And, if I am competent but still screwed up, I should be in an environment where I’m not afraid of being crucified for my mistake. Everyone screws up. Screwing up and incompetence is not necessarily the same thing. Risk-takers, visionaries and leaders have learned the importance of developing a disciplined approach to screwing up.
Stop using BS to cover incompetence. It sucks the energy out of any organization.
I’m Smarter/Bigger/More Powerful Than You BS
This type of BS is particularly nefarious, because it strikes at the upper levels of the organization. Executives generate huge clouds of intentional BS waging turf wars to establish corporate lines of power. Egos and BS are positively correlated in the workplace. The dangerous thing about this is that generally the executive making the call is so far removed from the situation that she has no perspective on it. But that doesn’t stop the BS. You might as well have two rams butting it out head to head in the boardroom. It’s just as productive and a lot more thrilling to watch.
This strain of BS can stop corporate strategy in its tracks. It usually comes disguised as mission statements, vision statements, core values or other BS-laden documents that have zero relevance to the real world. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m a big believer in true corporate strategy, but 99% of what passes for this is pure BS. It accomplishes nothing.
Throw it out and start over with something real.
I Hate Change/I Don’t Want To Do This BS
The final type of BS is more common on the front lines. The cause is simple. We just don’t want to do something. So we create a BS screen to hide the real reason why we don’t want to do it. This is usually tied to one of the two previous types of BS. Either we’re lazy and/or incompetent and don’t want to do the thing (see Cover My Butt BS) or a boss is forcing us to do something stupid (I’m Smarter/Bigger/More Powerful than You BS). Either way, the natural reaction is to start BSing.
I believe we should all start actively seeking out BS and calling people on it. It shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace. And I realize that it’s human nature. You can’t change human nature, right? Well, having sex is pretty natural too, and we don’t tolerate open orgies in the workplace.
It’s all a matter of choice and agreement. Let’s at least have the discussion. I believe it’s one worth having.
Brilliant stuff, Gord, and painfully accurate. BS can be measured as a percentage of a staff member's time spent in meetings. There is an inherent tension between control and empowerment as an organization gets larger. For senior management to have control implies disempowering people closer to the action (who are better judges based on proximity). This necessitates meetings which in turn necessitates assholes. A-holes occur because when decisions are made only at the top of the org chart, promotions happen because of attention getting tactics rather than excellence. Trusting the judgment of others is hard for many people, but if you hire well, the benefits are many; BS reduction being one of the tops.
"I do vitally important stuff and make sure I'm not distracted by you, although you try to waste my time. You do nothing useful - just bullshit - and refuse to help me, even though I ask you."
OMG - So true...every word! You need to write a correlating blog called "The No-Ass-Kissing Rule" given this ritual extends from the "No-BS Rule" and is practiced by males and females alike, often in tandem with BS. I am particularly appalled at the amount of lost time spent daily by aspiring managers and staff who feel hanging out in their boss' office shooting the shit is the way to work their way into the corner office. It only proves that egomania is alive and well in the executive ranks.
This is awesome! Love the straight talk! Considering all the other types of BS - would love to see a "part 2" with more categories! (All BS aside, I should suggest some now, but am not going to because I'm being lazy.)
Excellent article beyond compare. Perhaps, this stop the BS starts in schools and education. Anti social media hasn't helped. Lack of responsibility and consequences with absurd rewards for such in corporate ivory towers dig the knives deeper.
Good one, Gord. BS is a complex topic. Why is there so much of it? What is the actual structure of the concept? Harry Frankfurt is, in my view, the leading theoreticion on the topic. His landmark essay, "On Bullshit," is available online and should be of value to anyone studying this rich topic:
Great article with several subtopics.
Since I have lived and worked in Oregon, Chicago area, and now Kentucky I have picked up on a regional/cultural BS level and expectation.
In addition, I think we had less BS in Oregon working with people where American English was not their primary language because you just can't afford the time and confusion it brings when working with people that don't use English as their primary language (nor can they possibly understand our BS culture). So I think the reason I am less of a BS'er is because I have found it to be a barrier when trying to work with others and I prefer to be efficient and clear for cost and safety reasons. I want to talk to be understood primarily not to waste other's time and play games.
At root, BS is the result of a lack of courage. Courage is hard because those without it are determined to punish those who have it.
This really is an article that should be required reading for every executive. Thank you for telling it the way it really is. How many of us have watched with increasing boredom at meetings as that strange ornithological curiosity, the Weegee Bird, fed by the BS, ascends in ever-decreasing concentric circles until it disappears up its own ass?
It really takes the fun out of making things happen. You've thrown a strong light on that and your readers would do well to make it go viral.
In 1993 I was presenting to a Board on brand positioning & I was asked about my own positioning statement...I hesitated but I'd put so much thought into it that I couldn't hold back..it was simple.. 'Avoid the assholes.'
One of the most satisfying things about having your own business is "doing great work for nice people."
It's up to us all to make our choices and avoiding BS and Assholes are the best choices you'll ever make.