By Atul Mathur, an engineer, writer, and trainer.
How Bullshitters Not Just Survive But Thrive, Until…
(Note: If you can’t see anything meaningful in the blurry image, that’s normal. The clue to this image lies somewhere in the middle of the article.)
At 7:30 pm, three hours after the office closing time, it was finally our turn to go home. As we were about to leave the premises, my boss made a phone call to his boss. And this was our routine on almost all days: We often stayed back, and he always called his boss while leaving. Not only that, we also sometimes worked on public holidays when everyone else was enjoying with their families. After all, my immediate boss was one of the rising stars in the organisation and was well-known for “going the extra miles (not just a mile)”.
As a young graduate engineer, almost 30 years ago, this was my first foray into the corporate world, and little did I know that I was encountering the first specimen of what would turn out to be a special corporate species: Corporate Bullshitters or CBs in short.
CBs are that special breed of people who don’t do any solid work, but they create an undetectable illusion of superior performance and capabilities through a range of perception management strategies. And as a result, they miraculously rise in the corporate hierarchy like helium balloons.
This article is dedicate to the art of bullshitting and how it goes undetected in typically hazy corporate environment.
Corporate population: Three-basket distribution
Over the last 30 years, I have had the privilege of working with wide variety of people, and overall, the corporate population can be packed into three baskets:
W-S (Excellent work but not smart)
People falling in W-S basket are highly competent and do excellent work, but unfortunately they lack the crucial ingredient required for corporate growth: Smartness. By smartness, I mean they are not fluent communicators and lack quick thinking on the feet. They may not dress as smartly as others and often project lack of self-confidence in meetings.
W-S are often overlooked for promotions, thanks to getting labelled as “not managerial or leadership” type. Being the weakest in the power pyramid, these people often take up the most difficult and challenging tasks—and also get blamed first when things go wrong.
Overall, W-S form the backbone of an organisation. (When they apply for leave, everyone worries about “Who will do the work?”)
Finally, on the backs of W-S crowd, the people in the second basket (S-W) thrive.
S-W (Smart but no work)
S-W characters are incompetent and care a damn about actual work or team’s or organisational interests, and simply stay clear of any direct responsibilities. While personally not doing solid work, they relentlessly and ruthlessly delegate, and use the characters in the first basket (W-S) to get the things done. And when it comes to credit, they don’t mind gobbling it all.
But S-W have one great strength, which enables them to sail smoothly: Smartness. They are master communicators and manipulators, and their body language is forceful. Projecting high self-confidence outside (even if they suffer from deep insecurities inside), they always give an impression of being a “driver” or “leader”.
S-W are often labelled as “leadership or managerial material” and enjoy steady growth in corporate hierarchy.
W+S (Excellent work & also smart)
Few people are both great at work and smart to the optimum level. Deservedly, they rise to the very top of the corporate hierarchy. If S-W people feel shaky ever, it is in front of W+S characters.
So, which basket Corporate Bullshitters belong to? No guesses here! Obviously, CBs are the highly distilled version of the second basket (S-W) characters. I am sure you’ve come across a few exceptional characters in your career who are incompetent and irresponsible, but by the sheer power of their “talking talent”, they end up becoming bosses of more competent people. How does it happen?
Deception of perception
Ideally, in an organisation anyone not performing and contributing to the hard results should not survive, leave alone thrive. So how do CBs rise?
The answer lies in one word: Perception.
What we perceive is often not the whole reality. (Look at the picture again at the top of the article: Can you see a cow?)
Unlike others, CBs know a little secret, which is their ticket to comfortable ride: There is performance and then there is perception of performance. Their game plan comprises two simple steps:
- Step 1: Surround yourself with the best performers and dump the real work on them.
- Step 2: While work is taken care of by someone else, focus squarely on managing bosses’ perceptions, which means fluent communications, forceful presence in meetings and projection of “managerial/leadership” traits.
This two-step strategy works well in typically hazy corporate environments where how you look, talk and walk often obscures what you actually do when you sit in the chair.
So can you spot a CB in the crowd?
Bullshitting: Classic symptoms
To spot Bullshitters around you, look at the “managerial” type of characters around you and ask the following questions:
- Teflon character: Who is like teflon with nothing sticking to them? Who invariably stays clear of any direct responsibility for difficult, challenging work? (Classic CBs act like postman; any difficult stuff coming their way simply gets posted to others in the team.)
- Busybody: Who stays busy with trivial stuff like attending useless meetings, touring here and there, emailing, shuffling some useless papers, etc. instead of doing solid work that requires focused attention? (CBs typically act busier than others.)
- Exploiter: Who surrounds himself/herself with best of the people available in the office–and exploits them? (CBs are like islands of incompetence in the sea of competence.)
- Resource sucker: Who wants more and more resources and always remains on look out to corner more people into the department? (Highly insecure, CBs keep sucking organisational resources in their direction.)
- Master communicator: Who are the most fluent communicators with answers for anything, anytime?
- Confident: Who projects dominant presence in the office?
- Informant: Who excels in “keeping the boss informed”?
- Chameleon: Who behaves nicely with bosses and clients, but ruthlessly with own subordinates?
- Extra miler: Who does nothing solid during the normal working hours, but can’t stop “going the extra mile” by staying late, working on weekends–and even plugging in from vacation?
CBs thrive until…
So is the rise of Corporate Bullshitters unstoppable in an organisation? Yes, until…
Performance becomes more important than perception of performance
Is bullshitting possible in sports or art or music? Can you hide your performance in a football match or swimming competition or stage performance? No! In all situations where a person’s individual performance is on display for everyone to see in black and white, CBs have no chance of survival. I have seen the bottom of S-W basket falling off for some CBs when they suddenly meet a boss who squarely focuses on “performance”–and is too smart to be swayed by “smart talk” alone.
To conclude, nothing much has changed since I first entered the corporate world 30 years ago: Even today, in most organisations, despite elaborate appraisal systems, perception of performance (staying late, talking smartly, acting confident, etc.) is mistaken as performance.
In the garden you pass by every day, if someone planted a few plastic flowers among with the real ones, would you be able to spot them? From a distance, you may not be able to see the difference unless you go real close. Same is the situation in many organisations where Bullshitters mingle among real performers–and bloom. And typically, like plastic flowers, they go undetected and outlast the real flowers.
In the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (remember Sherlock Holmes?): “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
The reality of a person’s character, competence and contribution often lies behind the smoke screen of our quick perceptions. Ignore the smoke!
(Note: If you still can’t see the cow, please search “visual intelligence cow” in Google images. You should be able to meet the cow there.)