On organisational bullshit

Reading Frankfurt’s On Bullshit triggered a barrage of memories and thoughts for me. To paraphrase Frankfurt, bullshit is so pervasive in the air we breathe that we’ve been sensitised to it. In fact, we often participate in producing bullshit. To Frankfurt, bullshit is not quite lying as the latter presupposes. The opposite of lying is telling the truth and in that sense the two can be distinguished and differentiated. Bullshit is somewhere in between and the opposite of bullshit is – I am guessing – no bullshit. A photographer can add filters to an image with boring colours, but ultimately seeking to create an effect that the original picture did not have (the one below has no filters).

A bullshitter, in some sense, creates an illusion, a make belief, with the view to convince. Just like in films that are often made to look like a real thing, except they are not. Hollywood (and Bollywood) films often feature scenes with a high amount of hyperbole: i.e. a protagonist successfully escaping a chase by a dozen police cars whilst crashing a dozen others on the way and left unharmed, unscathed, unshaken. Just as film directors creatively manipulate the settings, actions and camera to create an effect of reality, a bullshitter creatively manipulates words and frames to create effect. In some sense, when we bullshit we direct reality.

It seems that bullshitting is more prevalent in social settings where influence and managing one’s image are important… especially if people do not want or can’t say things as they are or they have something to hide (say incompetence or inconsistencies). Workplaces seem to be full of bullshit. Sit in office meetings and the stench can become obvious in less 15 minutes into it… and you have at least another 45 to go. Particularly, if someone wants to convince others of some controversial ideas/actions. The trick to bullshitting: tell people something that can be hard to deny because it looks true (although you do not care for that truth) and say like you believe it. In one organisation I used to work, people followed ‘fake it till you make it’ rule to describe (and justify) their actions. Bullshit!

To make things worse, it seems that not to bullshit in the workplace could be interpreted as lack of sophistication and could be even detrimental to one’s social standing in the office. Is that because those some have a desire – perhaps unconsciously – to bullshit better? What strikes me more, is that the opposite can be true as well: nuanced and artful bullshitting can generate respect among some. Yet the biggest bullshit in the office life seems to fall from the top. The rule of thumb developed from experience is the higher one in the organisational ladder the more they seem compelled to bullshit.

We can be complicit in creating bullshit. But how much do we have to lose without bullshitting?

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