The ‘truth’ about ‘bullsh*t’ and why we do it at work

Why people ‘bullsh*t’ is now a genuine area of study and reveals a lot about our motivations, particularly in the workplace.

These days it appears people are less influenced by objective facts than appeals to their emotions and subjective world views.

Terms such as ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ have exploded in public discourse. Oxford Dictionaries actually declared post-truth as the 2016 word of the year, invoking the notion, “Truth is dead. Facts are passé.”

But post-truth is not the opposite of truth, nor telling more lies.

Instead, it is characterised by a lack of concern about whether or not the claims we make or embrace are true.

Such truth indifference becomes the catalyst to bullsh*t, defined as communication that results from disregard for the truth, evidence, or established bodies of knowledge. It comprises both the communicative act and the information in it.

To’bullsh*t’ is to lie, right?

A plethora of fact-check websites exist to identify and debunk social and political bullsh*t; the University of Washington has even developed an online course — ‘Calling ‘Bullsh*t’ — to help students “learn to detect and defuse [bullsh*t]”.

Bullsh*t and lies differ in two fundamental ways: first, liars know that the information they are providing is false, but try to pass it off as true.

The bullsh*tter’s deceit, however, lies in concealing their disregard for the truth. Whereas a lie can only contain false information, bullsh*t may turn out true or false, but nevertheless still be bullsh*t.

Bullsh*t is but one symptom of the current post-truth landscape. It exacerbates growing scepticism towards scientific evidence-bases, causes parents to make disadvantageous medical choices for children, and coaxes naive investors to purchase shady financial products.

All told, our current research reveals that people ascribe the workplace as the primary setting for bullsh*tting. Indeed, the construction and dissemination of information are central to organisational life enabling bullsh*t to invade institutional discourse via politicking, agenda-setting, and impression management.


Why we do it at work

At work, we struggle through bullsh*t meetings and presentations; consultants bullsh*t on client reports; workers bullsh*t on performance self-reviews and feed their bosses bullsh*t; we avoid work to ‘shoot the sh*t’ with our colleagues.

Rapid advances in technology, automation, and outsourcing have even created “bullsh*t jobs”—or jobs that are essentially pointless, even in the minds of those who perform them.

Still, we lack a systematic understanding of bullsh*tting in the workplace. Recently, our research team began to address this issue with a qualitative exploration of workplace bullshitting through a motivational lens.

We began with a simple question: why do people bullsh*t at work?

A motivational approach—with its focus on discerning the functions or purposes served by particular actions seemed a good place to start.

We asked 71 participants (46 per cent female; mean age 40 years) to recall incidents of bullsh*tting at work while providing as much detail as possible about the setting, content, and target/s of their bullsh*t.

We also asked them to describe, in detail, their underlying reasons for bullsh*tting. Through an iterative process of analysis, we identified several categories of reasons that are briefly described below.

Common reasons

The most common reasons (70 per cent) for bullsh*tting tended to reflect purposeful intent to acquire valued personal or social resources.

Participants described how they used bullsh*t to control others’ impressions of them so they appear more competent. (“I was trying to achieve the objective of making my peer believe that I knew more about college football that I really did.”)

Others wanted to be more likeable (“I guess I didn’t fit in well and wanted to be a part of their conversation even if I didn’t really know what was going on”), or to amplify status differences (“I felt that I had to make myself look really good and that I was smarter than him and was able to do more than him”).

Some were concerned with maintaining or enhancing social relationships with colleagues (“I was just trying to loosen him up, we goof around a lot when we can, and I just wanted him to know that he was welcome there as long as he could take a nice bullsh*tting”).

For others, it was simply personal amusement (“I honestly didn’t have any specific goals or objectives beyond just having fun seeing him sweat for a couple of minutes…I wanted to take the wind out of his sails a bit”).

While buying time to complete unfinished work (“I was trying to give myself more time to complete and hopefully get the task off the priority list”) was also listed as a reason to bullsh*t.


It gives good cover

Besides wanting to gain valued resources, employees also bullsh*t as a means to preserve their resources or prevent their loss.

For example, participants described how they bullsh*tted their peers or subordinates to prevent them from forming negative impressions and attributions of their productivity, effort, or potential (“I bullsh*tted because I really did not like the project. I also did it because I did not want to give the impression that I was not fully committed to doing an assigned project” and “I wanted to cover my ass and not have him be mad at me”).

Some other popular reasons reflecting ‘loss avoidance’ were to avoid work or free-up personal time (“I wanted the time off but knew I would not be able to get it just by saying I needed a personal day”) and avoid conversations or make them more interesting (“I was getting annoyed with her conversation and wanted to steer it in another direction. I tried to change it but she wouldn’t drop the subject”).

These are only preliminary findings, and we are continuing our program of research in this area. For example, the familiar notion of the “bullsh*t artist” implies that bullsh*tting involves some degree of skillfulness or ‘savvy’ (such as improvisation or quick-wittedness)

Bullsh*tting can beget social penalties if detected (damaged reputation, social exclusion).

Getting away with it

This suggests that people may bullsh*t more willingly when they believe they have the ability to bullsh*t successfully at work, including knowing when and whom to bullsh*t.

Employees should feel more confident to bullsh*t when they anticipate “getting away” with it; that is when they are perceptive of their environment and others, able to adapt their bullsh*t to diverse and powerful targets, and can appear as being authentic, sincere, and genuine.

Even so, the extent to which bullshit produces psychological and material benefits for bullsh*tters should depend on whether they actually get away with it; that is, whether co-workers or supervisors (their ‘bullsh*ttees’) interpret the bullsh*t as sincere and meaningful.

What these findings do highlight is that bullsh*tting is purposeful, goal-directed behaviour. Broadly speaking, individuals make proactive and strategic choices to bullsh*t at work as a means to gain or prevent loss of valued resources.

It appears that desire to gain something of value (e.g., status and respect, time, relationships) is a more powerful motivator of bullsh*tting than is a desire to avoid loss of something of value.

Secondly, motivation to manage others’ impressions appears to be a fundamental reason why people bullsh*t at work.

That is, people bullsh*t at work primarily to convey a favourable social impression or prevent the formation of a negative one.

The author acknowledges the contribution of his co-authors; Professor Simon Restubog School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois and Fan Xuan Chen from the Department of Psychology University of Illinois, whose collaboration forms part of the basis of this article.

Published on 13 May 2020