Books editor’s blog: Empty ideas and words – we’re talking business

The business world is plagued by bullshit on an industrial scale, but André Spicer wants to help workers escape from its corrosive effects and rediscover meaning

October 19, 2017
Business cow
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There is a good deal of bullshit in the academy, but fortunately academics are also at the forefront of calling it out and suggesting remedies.

Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s lovely little book On Bullshit proved to be an unexpected best-seller when it was published in 2006. Now André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, City, University of London, has taken up the baton. An earlier book written with Swedish academic Mats Alvesson, The Stupidity Paradox, revealed him to be a powerful and often amusing scourge of corporate and educational idiocy. He has now returned to the fray with Business Bullshit (Routledge).

There is a time and a place, Spicer admits, for what he calls “artisanal bullshit”, the inconsequential and sometimes boastful chat regularly to be found in “relatively intimate spaces like the English pub or the North American poker game”. The problem is “the industrialisation of bullshit” whereby “empty and meaningless talk is manufactured on a truly mass scale”. And nowhere is this commoner than in the workplace.

At the extreme end of the scale is the memo Nokia CEO Stephen Elop sent to all employees in 2014 starting with the words “Hello there”. This contained a good deal of exhortation about being “the team creating the hardware that showcases the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences…[and] the confluence of the best of Microsoft’s applications, operating systems and cloud services”. It was only after wading through 10 paragraphs of such stuff that readers discovered that 12,500 people were going to lose their jobs.

There are several ways, as Spicer sees it, of coping with a world in which people check their smartphones the moment they wake and then an average of 46 times a day, and spend their office hours attending meetings, answering pointless emails and lurking on the internet. One is to take real pride in “miraculously manag[ing] to carve out a small slice of time to actually produce a little bullshit ourselves”. Another is to pinpoint aspects of their job that they find meaningful and fit them around the stuff they can’t get out of.

This can lead to what Spicer describes as “a rather troubling situation where employees find their whole workday taken up with meetings and then they spend their evenings and weekends on their ‘real work’”. It is safe to assume that this sums up the life of many academics.

It is all too easy, of course, to adopt some form of corporate jargon as one’s native language. Spicer reports the rather depressing finding that “one of the main things MBA students say they get out of the degree is that they no longer feel intimidated by business speak”. What we need to do instead, he suggests, is to take a serious look at the “economics of bullshit” – how “empty ideas” are produced, exchanged and consumed. Only then will we find ways to improve our “very insensitive bullshit detectors” and “boost the basic processes of reasoning in an organisation”. Among a number of other suggestions, he proposes that we take a good look at the whole rhetoric of “best practice” (ie, copying other organisations for the sake of copying them) and the constant flurries of new initiatives that can easily lead to “repetitive change syndrome”.

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