Who is the Bullsh!t Prevention Department?

by Elizabeth Williams

The other day I was asked at a grocery store checkout if I had found everything I had been looking for that day. Resisting the urge to say I wished I had been able to pick up a decent singing voice and my missing garden shears, I just grunted yes to this routine bit of bullsh*t.

Like all bullsh*t, such as the promise that my call is important, my business is valued and my bank is just checking on how my service is going, this tiny interaction is firmly rooted in our shared understanding that it’s got nothing to do with my ability to find ketchup and everything to do with trying to sell me something.

Organizations have their ritualized bullsh*t as well. Take a look at the job descriptions on your website or your annual report, or the latest CEO briefing to analysts. All come fully loaded with BS.

The Communicator’s Conundrum

So, too, do most organizational announcements, a good part of executive town halls, anything to do with engagement surveys and, well, you get the picture. Most of the BS is unintentional and most of it is pretty benign since everyone involved understands the rules.

But as communicators, we are in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, it’s our job to help the bullsh*tters get their messages out, and we don’t always have much influence over how things are framed up. Our podcast guest, Dan Pontefract, describes beautifully the way most such information is delivered to stakeholders adorned with “bow of bullsh*t”.

On the other hand, if we take seriously the idea that we are the voice of the employees, then it’s kind of our job to speak truth to the BS and try to inject some kind of authenticity and truth.

Authenticity vs. Transparency

In fact, that tension between authenticity and transparency is often where a good deal of bullsh*t is created. Obviously, organizations can’t divulge absolutely everything all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily grant us a license to fill in the blanks with stuff that isn’t true, isn’t meaningful and isn’t helpful.

One way to look at it is on the two dimensions of intentionality and disruption.

In the bottom left we have the benign ritual BS that thrums away at the heart of all organizations because “people are our most valuable asset…” And the top left is reserved for the BS we routinely manufacture, but that has relatively little long-term impact on the organization.

The right side is where we get into some trouble. Bottom right is what happens when ritual bullsh*t takes a toll. Often it’s in the form of confusion – think back to the last poorly communicated restructuring where, in an effort to not really talk about all the people who are being fired, we slather it with nonsense about efficiencies and creating value for shareholders. All of that is what wears away at trust and engagement month in and month out. The disruption is there, but hard to spot.

The top right is where smart communicators update their LinkedIn profiles and start networking their butts off. This is where the BS is so blatant and so disruptive that trust disappears, good people leave and, left unchecked, the brand is permanently damaged. If you’re looking for examples, consider some of the under-reported data breaches from 2019.

So how, in a world where BS is pervasive, do we do try to keep it under control in our organizations? A few ideas emerged from our discussion:

  • Be good role models and keep our own BS under control
  • Gently challenge the ritualized, routine, invisible BS in our organizations
  • Counter confusion with facts and evidence
  • Find and support those leaders who are trying to be truthful and authentic
  • Speak truth to the more egregious BS creators
  • Be prepared to find the door if the collision between the organization’s BS and your values is wearing you down.

Download our free Bullsh!t Barometer here.

To learn more about communicators and BS, check out the latest Swear Jar podcast, Speaking Truth to Bullsh!t with our special guest, Dan Pontefract.

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