How to deal with corporate bullshit

August 23, 2017


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Have you ever noticed how the business world, including tech which is the cool part of the business world, is never really taken that seriously?

Not when compared to the fact that it is a huge part of the economy and not only changes our lives but absorbs it in our working hours.

Business gets the front page if Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg have a bowel movement, but other than that coverage is sparse. The idea that AI might pose a humanitarian risk was shocking and too alarmist an idea to engage with to deserve more than a quick front-page splash. Whereas those of us wrapped up in the tech world know it’s a pertinent and difficult issue.

Read More: The ongoing campaign against lethal autonomous weapons systems in warfare

Why won’t anyone else engage in it? Because they’re not aware of the tech or its capabilities or the likely trajectory or… anything. Because the business world isn’t taken that seriously. The financial crash is another example. It was bad, right? Very bad? Things that were done shouldn’t have been done… or things that weren’t done should have been done… or… something? But who knows, because no one thinks or cares about this stuff, and certainly doesn’t take it seriously, until they’re forced to.

And why should anyone? The rest of the world uses think tanks which agonizingly trawl through data. They peer-review academic papers to exert the utmost pedantry on the standards of their publications. They have debates for their own sake, because that’s where the nuances of ideas are discovered. Business doesn’t have time for all that. Got to make money. Which is difficult. Perhaps it’s difficult because the stuff it “doesn’t have time for” isn’t done.

No wonder 90% of businesses fail (don’t worry, according to that Forbes article the 10% succeed for just four reasons. It’s that simple). But business is the source of innovation! Well, actually, science is – your phone wouldn’t work without quantum mechanics. But either way, I wouldn’t consider 10% a particularly good success rate.

“Corporate bullshit” is everywhere, it’s not just corporations. And the idea that only 10% of businesses succeed and therefore entrepreneurs are to be revered and this is all an amazing a and commendable thing is an example of it. So oft-cited it’s overlooked.

Corporate bullshit is the means by which people who don’t know what they’re doing sound like they do know what they’re doing, and people who do know what they’re doing make themselves feel like other people couldn’t do what they do.

Corporate bullshit is the icing on the cake, proof that not even the business world takes the business world seriously. People get annoyed about it but don’t do anything about it, they give its use in meetings the dignity of a response rather than someone saying “what the fuck are you talking about?!” Even Googling “how to deal with corporate bullshit” renders no exact matches and very related matches. Despite this we all complain about meetings. Ever wondered how good they could be if this was all cut out?

TechCrunch even went as far as to publish an article on the lying that is required to be an entrepreneur. And The Atlantic has published an article from an ex-consultant who describes MBAs as “learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like ‘out-of-the-box thinking,’ ‘win-win situation,’ and ‘core competencies.’

So, I used this lovely little corporate bullshit generator to randomly picked out five phrases it offered, and will now use them to show you how to spot the five criteria of corporate bullshit.

Everyone knows the popular phrases, but it’s not just the tortuously worded sentences. It’s much more banal than that; it’s characterised by a lack of precise thought and/or articulation, which we can and do all take the piss out of. But this stuff is everywhere and we all have to deal with it both because it’s thrown at us and because not doing so would betray a complete lack of integrity.

  1. Quickly cloudify equity invested collaboration and idea-sharing

Means: “Use Google docs”

Commonly heard version: Phrases like “I’ll reach out to…” rather than “I’ll ask…” or “we should sync with…” rather than “we should talk to…”. This is arguably to most common, most insidious and most cringe-worthy form of corporate bullshit.

Explanation: The speaker is deliberately ignoring the way everyone else says whatever they’re trying to say in order to use lingo or long words. The person very clearly has absolutely no interest in the fundamentals of communication and is seeking to distance themselves from some form of “normality”. Anyone guilty of this kind of thing should be immediately barred from any management positions because if they don’t recognise the importance of finding common ground with other people they shouldn’t be… near them.

  1. Efficiently build empowered networks

Means: “Make a company” or “use the internet” or “sell things”

Commonly heard version: Other adherents to this category include the classic “leverage key deliverables” or, more likely, comments referring to “workable” or “sustainable” “solutions”

Explanation: All of these contain a complete indifference to context. The proponent doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but more importantly has no interest in knowing what they’re talking about. They haven’t done their homework or haven’t attempted to understand, and they’re not being honest enough to ask questions or admit to a lack of familiarity with the topic in question.

This is at once an insult to the importance of the subject under discussion and betrays a lack of curiosity or cognitive capacity to even try. It’s like waving a big flag saying, “I don’t give a fuck,” which I’m sure a lot of us would like to do sometimes. But we don’t because it’s either rude or we know it’s necessary despite our agnosticism towards the topic. But corporate bullshit has found a way to navigate this in a way so obsequious only it could.

  1. Synergistically drive distinctive total linkage

Means: “People should work together”

Commonly heard version: You may well have heard people referring to “aligning functionalities” or getting “on the same page”, perhaps in extreme cases the need to “harmonise” stuff.

Explanation: This is just the ability to suggest something which is already happening. And it’s hugely popular, especially from people who don’t actually know what they’re doing. They get to sit in the midst of a complicated discussion and get to say something to which people will nod. Whether they know what’s going on or not these kind of phrases offer a telltale sign that the source from whence they came doesn’t think anyone else thinks working together is important.

It ranges from unhelpful to insulting, it doesn’t move the conversation forward and implicitly focuses minds on “We’re not working together? I thought we were? If this is what people think the issue is deeper than I thought. Well if only John would get his bloody team to hit target we might be able to….” As you can see, hardly a healthy interjection.

  1. Dynamically innovate scalable potentialities

Means: “Have good ideas”

Commonly heard version: Especially popular in sales teams, things like “we need to be in a position where clients are signing up to our service and staying with us for extended periods” fall into this category

Explanation: Essentially the speaker is suggesting doing something which is definitely a good idea and which everyone is trying to do anyway. Something so obvious it shouldn’t even need mentioning, and for which the difficult bit of achieving said statement is how. I find this particularly pernicious, often found coming from the mouths of sales leaders who aren’t hitting their target.

The subtext of this point is the person trying to bond with whoever they’re speaking to. Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, they’re trying to get agreement, get everyone’s heads nodding, in a “we’re all in this together” kind of way. But the sub sub text is usually that the reason the thing which should be being done isn’t being done is the fault of the person issuing this type of statement.

It might often be issued in the same discussion as deflected responsibilities. In this light the speaker comes across as a unifying presence. But in reality without recognising where the fault is there’s no hope of achieving anything. Placing blame might be difficult but that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.

  1. Objectively leverage existing team driven paradigms

Means: “Teams should find the way that works best for them”

Commonly heard version: Stuff like “we need an account management-specific process” or, from a department head, “we need something which works for us” or when under fire “we can’t be responsible for processes which aren’t ours”.

Explanation: This person is suggesting that which is the premise of the discussion already underway. Yes, of course you need something which suits your specific needs. Don’t we all? But we don’t all expect something which fits our needs exactly because that would be unreasonable.

The speaker of these phrases is implying one of two rather nasty things — either that someone hasn’t understood the premise of the discussion, hasn’t understood the issue or “done their homework” in some way – probably because they disagree with them and are trying to subtly discredit them. Or that some other requirements which conflict with their ability to get exactly what they want aren’t important – which would be to subtly suggest that they’re the most important. In either case it seeks to ignore the need for discussion, explanation or justification and instead throw their toys out of the pram. Really pathetic.

So how does one respond to such BULLSHIT?

Well, current softly-softly-catchy-millennial management would try and sympathise or even empathise with those who are having difficulties. I wouldn’t disagree with this general approach but would argue that the level of bullshit we’re talking about here violates an unspoken common contract. The purveyors of this crap are using very subtle, nuanced language to ignore both conversational norms and uphold a basic decency in working relationships. This language might not seem so, but it is tacitly aggressive and will at best seriously hinder progress, at worst actively create a hostile environment.

I would take a blunt passive-aggressive approach. A basic algorithm can be used in the sentence “well, of course <accept premise, stating the implied meaning of the assertion in plainspoken language, thus agreeing with the person while unveiling the hidden meaning> so then we need to <refocus the conversation on the crux of the matter being discussed>.”

This might get other people’s backs up, but realistically it’s the people who don’t care that they’re already getting your back up. Plus everyone else in the room probably agrees with you. Other than that it doesn’t seem difficult, and it’s not, SO WHY DO WE LET THIS BULLSHIT CONTINUE?!


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