A CEO transcript of a conference call to Investors post a Merger and Acquisition:

What does this narrative actually mean?

Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar kind of empty and misleading narrative, produced in a shallow way and intended to lead to some kind of surface agreement.  Did you ever want to call bullshit on it? I have. Here’s my example; a comment from a Director of LeisureNet Ltd, the organisation I blew the whistle on, to Investors and the media.

Why did no one ask what the heck a ‘war chest’ was?  Looking back retrospectively, this statement is bullshit, delivered to obscure and mislead. By 1997, LeisureNet was already drowning in a flood of bullshit, which is particularly true of any organisation in trouble, whose managers tend to make up stuff on the fly and with little regard for future consequences. As Scott Lynch wrote in The Republic of Thieves  “When the sky’s falling, I take shelter under bullshit.” 

Bullshit is costly to people, society and planet. The stakes are really high.

Just saying “bullshit” is deeply satisfying, its rich soup of consonants opening with an aggressive plosive and then sliding into the disdainful slurred hiss of “shit.”

Where the bullshitter gets to bask in the glow of unearned wisdom, the bullshit-caller gets to strike the pose of the undeceived straight-talker bravely swimming against a rising tide of baloney. And calling bullshit has a venerable intellectual pedigree. Plato first carved out a space for philosophy by distinguishing the philosopher’s search for knowledge from the persuasive speech of the sophists, the bullshit artists of antiquity.

Because bullshit has been around for a very long time and is almost everywhere, we assume we can spot it during committee meetings, vapid announcements, and town hall assemblies, as well as in puzzling and frustrating decisions. Few of us actually do, leaving us to  decry the inordinate influence of those who create and spread bullshit, and how they have managed to rise to the top of organisations and society, not in spite of but because of their bullshit.

The changing nature of communication in the corporate environment, and society now includes email, video-conferencing, intranets, and shared screens, in addition to face-to-face conversations, paper memorandums, and conventional meetings resulting in words, slogans, acronyms, jargon, graphics, and statistics flowing effortlessly. This has led us to paying homage to trendy buzzwords, sound bites and theories.

Is Lying the same as Bullshitting? Research by Ian P. McCarthy, David Hannah , Leyland F. Pitt  Jane M. McCarthy and Andre Spicer differentiate between bullshitting and lying. While a liar knows the truth and wittingly bends it to suit their purpose, the bullshiter simply doesn’t care about the truth. The essence of bullshit is therefore that it involves a disregard for the truth in order to mislead others.

Often delivered in an appealing or convincing way, or by distracting, exhausting or disengaging other people, the intention of bullshitting is to misrepresent the truth so that agendas can be pursued with little or no resistance. 

Why do people bullshit? When people feel obligated to provide an opinion, maintain a status quo and also when two other conditions are present: when their audience doesn’t know much about the subject, and when there is no accountability for producing bullshit.  In an environment with multiple competing agendas, if some of them are being advanced via the use of bullshit, it might not be surprising if some people feel that they must bullshit as well so as to stand a chance of pursuing their own agendas.

Seeking to preserve a status quo can involve Self Preservation and Role Preservation. Research on self-deception in psychology has found that through various cognitive processes such as selective information search, biased processing and selective remembering, people are able to focus on information which bolsters their sense of self and marginalises any information which might undermine their self concept and/or threatens the role they fill.

This has the advantage of limiting the cognitive load of the person making a misleading claim. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid acquiring resources. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their ventures or advance their roles.

Why don’t we SpeakOut against Bullshit? 
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.” Brandolini 2014

Just like in a theatre performance (or other fictional narrative), most people are willing to suspend their disbelief and take on a part so the performance can proceed. They become willing to put aside critical questioning and proceed as if bullshit contained some degree of truth.  One way this process of routinisation happens is by learning through repeated exposure to the use of bullshit whereby people become accustomed to both the script and how it should be performed.

We do not do epistemic due diligence ourselves. We are usually not cognitively equipped to do such due diligence, and even when we are, it is exhausting for us and alienating for others. Furthermore, in most social settings there is not one obvious correct answer waiting to be found . So instead of relying on common standards of epistemology, we rely upon social cues to sort out which knowledge claims are true and which are false.  Our reliance upon social cues means we systematically relax our epistemic norms to deal with ‘the social pragmatic need’ to get along. 

For instance if team members remain relatively silent while their boss spouts bullshit, the social relationship is likely to remain intact, albeit in a mistrusting way. This results in making us accustomed to faking it and going along with social fictions when necessary.  When a listener actively and strategically calls bullshit on a speaker, it can disrupt the surface-level agreement between people. The bullshitter will seek to repair this surface-level agreement through strategies such as evasive bullshitting, whereby they answer a fairly direct question with an irrelevant answer.  We observed this following the financial crisis of 2008, when senior executives of some of Britain’s largest banks were asked to testify in front of a committee of the UK Parliament. When the bankers were quizzed  about their responsibility for the crisis, many responded with evasive bullshit. They expressed regret, claimed they had already apologised and shifted blame to others. This evasion had a game-like quality. The inquisitors kept asking questions aimed at establishing the veracity of claims while the bankers continued to avoid the questions. This points to a significant challenge for people calling bullshit.

As we’ve seen in the above example, people are more likely to accept the statements of a fluent dodger (a person who talks well but doesn’t answer a question) than someone who is less fluent but answers the question. Academic, Mats Alvesson (2013) argued that wider socio-cultural concerns with ‘imagology’ (looks and appearance) has encouraged organisations and individuals to generate cliches and bullshit.

Calling out bullshit can be an effortful and time-intensive activity that can potentially harm people’s relationships, which ultimately is judged to be not worth their while.  However, when we don’t call bullshit out, it continues, with the bullshitter being able to maintain a language game where questions of truth and falsehood are not the yardstick people use to judge statements. This is the real danger.

Bullshit games can and do misfire when an interlocutor calls bullshit in an attempt to drag the discussion back to criteria of truth and falsity.  If this happens it becomes much more difficult for people to continue to bullshit.  It also makes it much harder for people to positively or neutrally respond to bullshitting and maintain a sense of surface agreement around the bullshit.

How does Bullshit impact us? When we remain silent in the face of bullshit, the bullshitter develops “a confidence in [their] own competence which ultimately outruns the fact.  I’ve observed this evolving in the whistleblowing space and more recently in ESG contexts.

Let’s look at the rhetoric around whistleblowers and protection, two words repeated synonymously in the whistleblowing space.  Promoting that whistleblowers are protected by the law is indication that those who peddle such bullshit don’t care about the truth. Encouraging potential whistleblowers to blow the whistle because the law will protect them is misleading and irresponsible.  What the law does is to allow a whistleblower to seek redress, in an employment tribunal, after they’ve suffered detriment and only if they’ve been able to prove that the detriment was caused through their whistleblowing. Many organisation’s disconnect the act of whistleblowing from the act of retaliation, which is why so much legislation to protect the whistleblower is practically irrelevant.

A second, worrying bullshit frame evolving in whistleblowing narratives is the notion that whistleblowers ‘win’ or ‘succeed’ if they prevail in their employment tribunal cases where they seek compensation for suffering a detriment.  Let me make it clear – Whistleblowers SpeakOut to halt an unethical practice – if they are able to do that, that is their success.

Research on bullshit found that when abstract images were paired with randomly generated ‘bullshit’ titles, they were judged as being more profound than images which either had no title or a descriptive title.

The danger is that once bullshit is crafted and stated, an audience consumes it, assesses it, and potentially spreads it. This happens when an audience finds an initial bullshit message appealing, confirmatory, and credible, and so concludes it to be truthful. This is the way bullshit is legitimised and codified.

Bullshit can Backfire.  When others realise that a person frequently engages in bullshitting, they may begin to mistrust them by questioning whether they are competent, benevolent and have integrity.  The result is that, due to distrust, people are likely to punish or avoid the bullshitter entirely.

As an example, a study of CEO calls with market analysts following the announcement of a merger or acquisition found that when CEOs used more management speak they were punished by the stock market with a lower pricing of the firm’s shares, irrespective of the longer-term value the Merger and  Acquisition may create. See an example of this at the beginning of my blog. This research, by João Cotter Salvado and Freek Vermeulen confirmed that it’s not the case that business jargon leads to a lack of understanding among analysts, or that a lack of understanding of the company’s strategy explains the market’s negative reaction. Instead, the use of jargon made investors suspicious of the deal, which caused an immediate decline in the company’s stock price upon the acquisition’s announcement. 

When an organisation becomes increasingly contaminated by empty management rhetoric, the opportunity for purpose building and social cohesion diminishes. For instance, Paulsen (2017) explored how employees in a Swedish government employment agency reacted when the organisation became increasingly dominated by empty management narratives. Many employees found themselves doing what they regarded as socially useless and existentially meaningless work, where, as part of their job, they were obliged to reproduce a large stock of standardised bullshit term.

No longer is bullshit a handy supply of manure for fertilising new ideas. Instead, it can create a dangerous waste problem, which could make people-and, indeed, the entire organisation, and planet-profoundly ill.

Organisations often use trendy but misleading names, tag lines, image colours etc to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking block chain technology . In the late 1990s, firms gained a similar boost in value by adding ‘.com’ to their names. In the early 1960s, firms with the suffix ‘tronics’ were perceived as being more valuable. Some of these firms did not actually use the technologies which their name invoked, but the title helped them to attract resources and higher valuations.

More recently organisations are claiming ‘green’ credentials despite there being nothing green about their products or services. Except perhaps the colours they’re choosing to populate their advertising imagery with – green and brown.


This, of course is not surprising and through the bullshit legal terms of ‘seek to’ and ‘encourage’, organisation’s are avoiding accountability for their claims.

Words matter.  For example the social practice of bullshitting was found in a study of health and safety practices in a Norwegian offshore oil industry. The study found that many of the onshore agencies were adept users of the word ‘resilience’. Researchers noticed that onshore staff such as managers from a large oil company and government officials were adept at speaking at length about resilience, but rarely would they be specific about what they actually meant. This meant the concept was essentially ‘unclarifiable’ and could be applied to almost any aspects of the shipping operation. The offshore operational staff became sceptical and indifferent about ‘resilience’. The offshore staff could talk about resilience when they were expected to (for instance, when a safety inspector arrived), but they didn’t seriously believe in it. One ship captain described resilience talk as ‘toilet paper’ which he only used to ‘cover my arse’.

Offshore operatives used the language of resilience as a kind of game they were expected to play if they wanted to legitimate their work in the eyes of distant bureaucratic bodies who would infrequently take an interest in them.

How does Bullshit manifest and Evolve?

Let’s begin with the Speech Community, as seen in the figure above. the Speech Community is recognised by ‘any human aggregate characterised by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs”.

Who and What makes up this Speech Community?

  1. Conceptual entrepreneurs. Many conceptual entrepreneurs operate in the management ideas industry. This is a sector made up of consultants, gurus, thought leaders, publishers and some academics.  This group is variable and consequently  some of the conceptual entrepreneurs seeking to peddle their wares in the management ideas industry are bullshit merchants.
  2. Noisy ignorance. This is when people lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it. Noisy ignorance is mainly due to a lack of understanding or experience concerning the issues being discussed. Often that ignorance has been strategically cultivated such as, in some cases, where individuals deliberately avoid gathering information or knowledge about an issue. In other cases, noisy ignorance is created by knowledge asymmetries where one party knows much more about a particular issue than another. When anyone is relatively ignorant about an issue, they do not have the wider background knowledge in order to compare new claims. Nor do they have an understanding of the right questions they might ask or the humility to do so.
  3. Permissive uncertainty. When faced with a challenging issue such as a significant and unexpected challenge, some organisations experience high levels of uncertainty but also find that different kinds of experts claim ownership over the problem This can create experimentation, participation and dialogue. But equally, it can create multiple failures, conflict and drift. Under these circumstances, a greater sense of confusion can well up and an ‘anything goes’ approach takes hold.  I expect to observe a lot of this as the EU Whistleblowing directive is rolled out and regulation around organisations’ ESG and non financial disclosures is delivered.

The community within the Speech bubble leads to – 

Language Games
Within the context of organisations, language games can include repeating the ideas of management gurus, developing strategic plans to engage in competitive wars, interacting in an online chat group  or engaging in an inquiry following a scandal.

To this list, I would add bullshitting.

At the heart of the language game of bullshitting is the act of advancing empty and misleading claims.  Recent linguistic analysis has identified the components of a statement that is bullshit. These are assertions which
(1) shows a loose concern for the truth,
(2) are driven by misrepresentation of intent and
(3) express undue certainty

Will you engage and reinforce or negate and undermine bullshit? The language game of bullshitting also entails how and if people respond to empty assertion. The shallow processing of empty and misleading claims happens when an individual who hears a bullshit claim doesn’t engage in meaningful inquiry through questioning or exploring a claim in more depth, letting it pass without any serious challenge. A second potential response is enthusiasm. This entails a more active and affirmative response whereby an actor faced with bullshit responds by joining in.
A final response to bullshitting is negation. This is when someone ‘calls bullshit’ by pointing out the false or misleading nature of a statement. 

Identity – Yes, that’s You with a capital Y
An outdated habit and pattern of creating our identities is that we create roles around ourselves and never look out again.  Participating in a language game is a form of identity work. It’s a way of creating, maintaining and in some cases undermining how others see us, and how we see ourselves.

Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. As a result, external audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and are more willing to invest resources in them.
When bullshitting enhances an individual’s’ image and identity and no one challenges or questions them, they’re likely to engage in more of it. For instance, research shows that an organisation increases the scale of bullshitting when they use more empty and misleading phrases in their advertising to consumers.

A second way bullshitting might increase is through extending the scope. This is a qualitative shift where people bullshit about a wider range of issues or in a wider range of forums. For instance, an organisation would increase the scope of bullshitting if it had previously been bullshitting in their advertising to consumers but then also began bullshitting in communication with employees. An implication of increased scale and scope is that becoming a legitimate participant in the collective conversation also means bullshitting.   

Additionally, veracious people get drawn into using bullshit just so they might be seen as having a legitimate voice in their organisation. Positive short term results from bullshitting can lead an organisation investing more into the speech community which encourages bullshitting. This means they are more likely to rely upon the  management ideas industry as a source of input when making decisions, more likely to reward noisy ignorance and more likely to stoke up permission.  Bullshitting becomes a language game which may appear to be useful in the short term but is harmful in the long term. It is allowed but not officially sanctioned.

Bullshitting is a common social practice in many organisations. In the previous section, I have argued that people engage in bullshitting to participate in a speech community, to get through day-to-day interactions within that community, and to reinforce a positive image and identity of themselves.  Successful bullshitting begets more bullshitting. When this happens, what starts out as informal bullshitting can gradually become a collective routine, then part of the formal organisation and end up as sacred truth.  

How do we recognise Bullshit?
The first rule of bullshit recognition is to expect it;
We must avoid becoming so accustomed to bullshit as to be indifferent to its presence;
Notice how colleagues go about framing statements, in written, spoken, or graphical form, that are without regard for the truth;
When faced with ‘jargonese,’ people often assume they’re missing something, or they confuse vagueness for profundity. The rule holds however, that if it is not possible to understand what the words in a statement mean, then it is reasonable to suspect the statement to be bullshit. (see some examples below)

When leaders de escalate and de sacralise bullshit in a public and observable way, bullshit can be deformilised.  ‘Calling out’ bullshit in an effective way is contagious and can lead to an entire organisation committing itself to avoiding management jargon, unnecessary acronyms and other forms of business bullshit. For instance, some organisations have adopted ‘no bullshit’ rules. 

Train for Courageous Conversations , either as a group or one to one, to learn what and how to question the deep emotional and moral values attributed to a particular term. A powerful question has the capacity to “travel well”—to spread beyond the place where it began into larger networks of conversation throughout an organisation or a community. Questions that travel well are often the key to large-scale change.

Training for Courageous Conversations empowers voice, allowing people to SpeakUp to counter the harm of bullshit.  Asking to see evidence that supports suspected bullshit and providing alternative statements, while being cognisant that simple and coherent bullshit will tend to be more appealing than intricate and complex truths, is challenging.    

Onboarding and Career Transitions: Utilise these opportunities to explore an individuals’ existing values to begin to see if what they once thought of as sacred is indeed ‘bullshit’.

Encourage critical thinking, an approach to thinking that is reflective, sceptical, rational, open-minded, and guided by evidence.  Critical thinking is the opposite of the quick, automatic, skim-based thinking that produces and spreads bullshit.  Those who have the ability to stop and think analytically about the substance of statements are less receptive to bullshit.

Encourage people to question statistics and visualisations of data. They should know the consequences of confusing means and medians, correlation and causation, and the measurement errors that can accompany biased sampling, the inclusion of outliers, and the misspecification of variables and relationships in regression models.

Eliminate pointless meetings and committees – there is an increasingly prevalent view that meetings and committees do not provide sufficient value when they involve too many or the wrong people, have no agenda, and are run inefficiently.  Organisations should only establish committees and have meetings when there are clear terms of reference, a value-adding agenda, and the right attendees who can contribute to the desired agenda. More simply, the need for a meeting should be questioned unless an important decision needs to be made.

Courageous Conversation training includes learning how to create an intentionally induced cognitive intervention that directs attention onto the ‘real’ features of a situation compared to anticipated or fear-exaggerated features by focusing on the description (but not the interpretation) of the situation.

I hope you enjoyed reading my blog.  If you did, please pass it on, and get in touch, I’d love to help.