The reign of business bullshit

From Up This Way, 10:35 am on 21 January 2018

The empty jargon of the management world is symptomatic of a deeper cultural malaise, says the author of Business Bullshit André Spicer.

The seeds of it can be traced back to the start of the 20th century when the 'management class' emerged and had to justify their existence, Spicer says.

“With any field of expertise the best way to [justify your position] is get a white coat and look like a scientist and develop some fancy vocabulary.”

In the 1980s, bullshit became a pseudo-science, he says.

“This is when things really got going, managers began to pick up on the nonsense lingo; that kind of quasi-hippy talk but also phrases that mean absolutely everything and absolutely nothing.”

American telecommunications company Pacific Bell learned the hard way when they attempted to reboot their work culture in the 1980s.

Pacific Bell consulted with devotees of the management guru Charles Krone before launching a staff training programme (and new-age language) called ‘Kroning’.

It didn’t go well.

“[Pacific Bell] had this really bizarre language so when someone came in from outside the organisation they had no idea what they were talking about.

“The people who were working there said the only effect this had was that meetings took three times longer.”

As well as annoying staff, the language of Kroning alienated customers, so after spending $US32 million on the project, the company eventually canned it.

But the bellwether of Pacific Bell seems to have fallen on deaf years – in the decades since we've seen an explosion of managerial and administrative positions tasked with ‘change management’ and ‘leadership’ projects. 

“Bureaucracy is on the rise and one of the effects of that has been the growth of so called ‘bullshit jobs’.”

Author André Spicer.

Author André Spicer. Photo: Supplied

British anthropologist David Graeber coined the phrase 'bullshit job' to describe a job even the person doing it finds pointless.

According to Graeber, if you answer yes to the question ‘Would society be better off if your job didn’t exist?’ – as 37% of people in the UK do – you have a bullshit job.

Unproductive management jobs suck the life out of an organisation, Spicer says.

“Teachers in the UK work the longest hours in Europe – 48 hours [a week] – and only 16 of those 48 hours is spent dealing with children face-to-face. The rest of it is spent on administration or other empty change-related processes.”

Those working in many other socially useful jobs face the same bullshit, he says.

“People spend more of their time dealing with empty admin and less of their time doing their core task.”

Speaking the language of management is a way of avoiding real action, Spicer believes.

“Sometimes doing something in companies can be quite dangerous. It’s often better to talk a lot and do nothing.”

When change does happen it is often at a superficial level.

“They’re launching a new values programme, they’re changing the brand – those kind of things show that they’re doing something and often that leads to a short term bump in share price.

“The longer term consequences are often nothing – or it actually undermines the organisation.”

By the time the pointlessness of such a project becomes apparent, the change managers have split.

“Often the people peddling it have moved on to greener pastures before the proverbial shit hits the fan.”