Books: Mired in verbal dishonesty

Performance is held back when communication between managers and workers is less than candid. David Bolchover finds this writer's tough appraisal refreshing.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-talk at work
Samuel A Culbert
Kogan Page

If, in George Orwell's words, the great enemy of clear language is insincerity, then the large office environment is a quite frighteningly insincere place. As Samuel Culbert points out at the start of his captivating book, Beyond Bullsh*t, spending the day wondering what everyone else is on about, and strongly suspecting that their primary goal is decep-tion rather than communication, leaves many workers feeling 'beaten up, confused, and even a little dirty'.

Culbert's book is the latest of many that address the dishonesty of workplace language. Most are presented as humorous mock dictionaries, with office euphemisms translated into comprehensible English. Culbert's falls into a less common but more illuminating and useful category: an analysis of why workers swim in bullshit - and advice on how they can form workplace relationships that don't contain bullshit at their very core.

Why this rash of books? Culbert himself argues that people undergo a constant process of self-justification while at work. They continually change 'what they find personally meaningful to fit with job satisfactions they perceive to be attainable ... until typically they reach a point where they are no longer dealing with a version of themselves that seems self- meaningful'.

The first reason why bullshit has risen up the agenda is because, in the age of honesty symbolised by life coaches, intimate autobiographies and openness about sexual orientation, more people sooner reach the point where they can't live with themselves in a bullshit environment. And, second, in the age of affluence, the trade-off of bullshit for financial security no longer seems so necessary. In other words, we no longer conveniently avert our gaze from bullshit - and we don't much like what we end up seeing.

In an intricately argued opening section, Culbert attributes the existence of workplace bullshit to the gap between self-interest and the organisational agenda. It purports to support the latter while, in reality, it seeks to promote the former. For example, he argues that people often use the bullshit phrase 'we believe' to imply an objective corporate truth that only troublemakers would resist, when what they really mean is 'I believe it because it suits me to'.

This is certainly one valid explanation, but Culbert perhaps places too much emphasis on it. A major cause of workplace bullshit is another gap, this time between perception and reality.

The value of many jobs in a large corporation is difficult to measure (back-office, public relations, marketing, human resources etc), and even where measurement is easier (sales), there are normally so many people involved in winning large client accounts that it's difficult to determine the contribution of each individual to the process. Workers instinctively sense this gap, hence the pervasive need to project a false image of themselves through liberal use of bullshit.

In a small company, this gap is either substantially narrowed or non-existent. A 2006 YouGov/Investors in People survey found that only one in five workers in organisations with up to 50 employees say jargon is used at their work, as opposed to two-thirds of those in organisations with more than 5,000 employees. The gap between self-interest and the organisational agenda will often be just as keenly felt by employees in a small company, but bullshit is scarce because individual usefulness is much easier to pinpoint.

Culbert says less bullshit and more 'caring, other-sensitive' relationships based on 'straight-talk' would help the individual worker to navigate the corporate jungle and boost the organisation's productivity, because openness corrects mistakes sooner.

Managers, meanwhile, can improve the performance of their charges by assuming genuine joint responsibility for it. In this two-way model, managers 'stand accountable for giving the guidance and creating the conditions that allow their subordinates to succeed'. Straight-talk is the inevitable consequence of this shared striving for the same goal. Personal agendas become aligned, hence less bullshit.

A great point. One could take it further by arguing that a revolution in managerial responsibility would eliminate the bullshit from the farce of promotion to the ranks of management.

When candidates are asked whether they want to manage people, they will generally reply with an enthusiastic but bullshit 'yes'. This is because they know that the promotion would involve more pay and status, but that their remuneration is likely to depend, as before, on their individual performance. If, on the other hand, managers were rewarded solely for the performance of their team, only the few people who actually wanted to manage people - and therefore might stand a chance of being good at it - would put themselves forward.

This second part of the book, the self-help section, is less worthwhile, if still highly readable. Culbert declares that he has never written a book with a 'Step 1, Step 2, this is how you do it' for fear of over-simplification. But although the sophistication of his writing makes the analysis of bullshit more profound, it serves only to make the advice, with its many exceptions and provisos, less easy to retain and therefore to practise.

Management books usually provide a depressing mirror image of the bullshit emanating from their subject matter, the workplace. Culbert's book is certainly a refreshing step beyond it.

- David Bolchover's latest book is The Living Dead: The shocking truth about office life (Capstone £12.99).

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