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Madness As Usual


  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 23. May 2024

Why It Is Sometimes Helpful Not to Get to the Point 

Employees attempting to survive the deluge of platitudes spouted by their superiors at meetings increasingly play bullshit bingo. Before a meeting, a set of the organization’s current buzzwords – ‘appreciation’, ‘synergy’, ‘proactive’, ‘mindset’, ‘sustainability’, ‘innovation’, ‘integrity’, ‘excellence’, ‘effectivity’, ‘disruption’, and ‘agility’, to list a few likely candidates – is arranged on a five-by-five grid. It’s all but a foregone conclusion that, at some point during the meeting, some employee will yell – or, more likely, whisper – ‘bingo!’ 

Bullshit bingo is only one piece of evidence of the rise of bullshit within business. Employees circulate lists of ‘bullshit jobs’, that is, roles they quietly suspect are superfluous. Consultancy firms, investment banks, and PR agencies secretly discuss which piece of bullshit is more likely to convince their customers. 

It is important to note that to bullshit is not to lie. Bullshit is a kind of speech that aims to distract the listener from what is actually relevant. If someone’s speech is full of bullshit buzzwords, she is not out to distort the truth. Rather, her remarks simply bear no relation to reality. 

There are different ways of producing bullshit. One way is the exclusive use of words for which a concrete meaning is difficult to establish. Value-laden terms such as ‘innovation’, ‘sustainability’, or ‘diversity’ offer enough interpretive space that everyone in the room is able to fill it with whatever they please. Another option is to use so many of these value-laden terms in one’s speech that it is impossible to establish which value, when push comes to shove, is the (most) important one. Yet another method of bullshitting consists in dynamically shifting between the values. The faster the different principles are substituted for each other, the less danger there is of being forced to adopt a fixed position. 

There is no doubt that the production of bullshit is hard work. It all depends on combining value-laden terms in a way that appears to be consistent. The formulations must carry the illusion of concreteness while being abstract enough that everyone can identify with them. They need to be compatible with the bullshit produced by others, and yet must at least appear to be original.  

A whole industry has grown up to support organizations in the production of lists of such values and to advise on how they can be presented as plausible. Management gurus are instrumental in counterposing these ‘modern’ values to ‘outdated’ ones. Consultants justify these ideals as concrete solutions to the persistent problems of organizations. Management conferences instil the most up-to-date principles in everyone’s minds by constantly repeating them with only minor variations. 

But increasingly there are voices talking about the danger that bullshit represents for organizations. The production of bullshit, they say, distracts people from ‘real goals’. Because everyone talks solely in terms of these generally accepted phrases, decision-making processes become increasingly irrational. As these bullshit phrases gain in importance, the standards of certain professional groups are dissolved and professional identities undermined. In the long term, trust within organizations deteriorates, for these organizations no longer have a sense of their own uniqueness. But if this is true, why do so many of us accept bullshit? 

Of course, politeness, naivety, or fear may play important roles. But perhaps bullshit also fulfils a function in stabilizing modern organizations. Superiors – and even businesses based on the principle of self-organization still have superiors – perceive an ever-widening gap between their actual scope of action and their responsibilities. Their employees increasingly make decisions on their own, but in the end it is still the boss who is blamed when something goes seriously awry. 

It is increasingly clear that managers confront a fundamental dilemma. On the one hand they are supposed to demonstrate their leadership qualities; on the other they are expected not to get in the way of processes of self-organization among their employees. According to Thøger Christensen, Dan Kärreman, and Andreas Rasche, bullshit is a tempting solution to this kind of dilemma. Because issuing direct instructions would out a manager as one of the ‘old school’, and yet he is still expected to provide a sense of direction, managerial guidance increasingly takes the form of general value phrases. Managers are thus able to provide a semblance of instruction without actually instructing. Bullshit is thus not a matter of the personal eccentricity of superiors but the result of role expectations that are increasingly becoming contradictory. 

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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