People’s propensity to bullshit increases when the social expectations of having an opinion are high, the audience is unknowledgeable, and the speakers expect to get away with it.

Like cheating in school, bullshitting is a way for people to advance their careers. If you’re good at spouting appealing and convincing bullshit, this can take you places. One of the reasons so much of it flows in workplaces today is because organizations do not make their employees feel safe and free to say things like “I don’t know,” “Prove it,” and “Where is your evidence?” Companies, in other words, don’t tend to put a premium on employees confronting people who are unethically or irresponsibly indifferent toward the truth—the bullshitters worth worrying about in your company. (Not so much the teasing, exaggerating, joking sort of bullshitter it can be fun to be around.)

Given how easy it is to produce bullshit, there are increasing concerns about its abundance and impact on society, particularly within the workplace. These fears have motivated a flurry of research that draws on the seminal work of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who defined bullshit. Scholars discuss how this form of misrepresentation in the workplace is linked to management fashions and jargon. Such insights underpin the sardonically conceived C.R.A.P. framework to help us Comprehend, Recognize, Act on, and Prevent bullshit in the workplace, which can include things like “overly upbeat or sanitized formal corporate communications coming from on high,” as one Wall Street Journal piece put it.

Is the marketing department more “full of it” than accounting?

To complement this, my colleagues—Caitlin Ferreira, David Hannah, Leyland Pitt, and Sarah Lord Ferguson—and I recently developed the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale. It allows you to measure the bullshit in your workplace—or at least, the amount of bullshit people perceive there to be. We’re building on research that shows that people’s propensity to bullshit increases when the social expectations of having an opinion are high, the audience is unknowledgeable, and the speakers expect to get away with it. People are also more likely to be receptive to bullshit if they have lower cognitive skills, paranormal beliefs, and “an uncritically open mind.” And when it comes to knowing if we can “bullshit a bullshitter,” well, it depends on the type of bullshitter. If you can produce highly convincing bullshit, then this is a sign of intelligence.

The scale is based on three key underlying dimensions of workplace bullshit: “regard for truth,” “the boss,” and “bullshit language.” The “regard for truth” factor is the extent to which a workplace values evidence and logic in decision-making over opinion and hunches. “The boss” factor assesses the degree to which employees believe that their superiors play a crucial role in producing, allowing, or encouraging the production and dissemination of bullshit in their workplace. “Bullshit language” captures the excessive use of acronyms, jargon, and statements that are either overly abstract or unreasonably complicated.

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It’s heartening that, since we’ve published the scale, several companies have invited us to work with them in applying and developing it further. The aim is to help leaders identify and better understand their employees’ understanding of what bullshit is and how they think it’s harmful (or beneficial) in their own business units. The scale can be used to identify if bullshit perceptions differ with employee age, tenure, gender, level, background of education, and job function. Is the marketing department more “full of it” than accounting? Do MBAs bullshit more than engineers? Is bullshit good when envisioning but harmful when changing? The scale can be used to examine such questions and the relationships between perceived bullshit levels and affective commitment, job attitude and satisfaction, and psychological safety.

We don’t have to let bullshit create cultures at companies that are delusionary, disingenuous, and exclusionary. If you would like to know the sources and effects of bullshit in your workplace, feel free to get in touch to learn more about applying the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale. It’s helpful to get a measure on this behavior. At the least, you’ll be able to do more than just bullshit about how much bullshit there is at work. 

Ian McCarthy is a professor at Simon Fraser University, and at the Center in Leadership, Innovation, and Organization at Luiss University. His research and teaching focus on operations management, innovation management, social media, and bullshit.

Lead image: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay