Recently I read one of Brene Brown’s more recent books Braving the Wilderness. This may not seem an obvious choice for a heavily tattooed philosophy major who is studying law, but what can I say, I love her writing (on the other hand her podcast … not so much, but my critique of pop science icons is probably not why you’re here).
I love Brene’s work because it focuses on vulnerability, shame, and forgiving ourselves and others for screwing up. These attributes deeply inform how we lead and the behaviours of our team members. Shame cycles and a refusal to be vulnerable are often the key ingredients of relationship breakdown in all walks of life, but especially in workplaces where we’re expected to shed our human foibles before we walk in the door.
One of the key ways this manifests is in avoidant and evasive behaviour. Blame shifting, denial, lying and bullshitting to avoid the discomfort and consequences of perceived failure (real or imagined) or being caught out. The latter two are what we’re here to talk about today.
Is there a difference between lying and bullshitting? Absolutely. While neither are behaviours you’re likely to be looking for in a star employee (unless you’re in federal politics … boom-tish!) if you had to choose one, lying is the way to go. Let me quote Brene:
“Lying is a defiance of the truth. Bullshitting is a wholesale dismissal of the truth.”
How good is that?! How succinctly does it capture the difference between the people in your life that are just hard work vs those who do your head in?! Liars at least base their assertion in reality. Bullshitters shift their reality to suit their purposes and undermine yours. They’re effectively gaslighters.
Let me give you an example. A liar might tell you they didn’t steal cash from the till, but cash is missing, they were the only ones on shift and the till had balanced on the shift before. Maybe there is another explanation but say you don’t have any witnesses; there is enough evidence there for them to have to have a pretty solid answer about what happened.
A bullshitter will say you didn’t provide a suitably secure till, that the environment is unsafe as evidenced by the fact that they don’t know how the money disappeared – "it could have been anyone and now I am terrified"; they are going to put a complaint into management about your handling of the situation.
Whether it’s your boss, a peer or a team member, bullshitters can make you feel helpless and stuck. The truth is they are as susceptible to being undone by reality as a liar, but they throw you off the scent with smoke and mirrors. These people are the ones my clients are often at the end of their tether with. They have a significant impact on the workplace because it’s rarely just the one person they behave like this toward. With liars, people tend to roll their eyes and wish someone would just deal with them. Bullshitters create an environment of fear and mistrust among those around them.
The answer for both of types is similar: to provide factual and/or objective evidence of their behaviour. In the till scenario you might have CCTV footage; even if it’s not over the till it might, for example, show no one came into the store that day. The till might be an industry-standard piece of equipment, with x and y and z security features, which in turn gives you an open into a question about how, given that, does the employee explain someone getting into it unseen. Or perhaps you can skewer the argument from another angle such as standard procedures; maybe there shouldn’t have a been a point at which someone was away from the till?
The liar, if you allow for some face-saving and good grace will usually capitulate and admit fault. The bullshitter will lead you down various merry paths, or try to. The key is to stick to objective questions and statements. If you can feel yourself getting flustered or off track, you can take time out; “I am going to consider what you’re saying”.
You have to stare down their threats of complaints or similar. If you know you’re treating the person with respect and you have reasonable grounds for your belief you’re on pretty solid ground, complaint or not. If you don’t have evidence or data, start to build it through documenting their responses to your questions and sharing them with them as quickly as possible after you have spoken to them. I frame these emails along the lines of:
Thanks for your time today. I appreciate your candidness. I just wanted to check we were both on the same page following our conversation.
Just to recap:
I raised x issue …
You explained that ….
When I questioned y, you advised z …
We agreed Company Name would provide the following supports for you in your work:
I advised this couldn’t happen again and if it did a and b would likely occur.
Please don’t let me know if there is anything I have missed or misunderstood by XX day (usually 2 business days) otherwise I’ll assume this is an accurate account and move forward on that basis.
Without fail, they will falter if you hold the line and double back when they contradict themselves. The power of an email like the above is it is reasonably non-confrontational and doesn't require them to actively acknowledge or sign off on it to acknowledge it's accuracy. If it is an accurate account, it is unusual for someone to come back to you, and if they do you may or may not choose to incorporate it or refute it unless it is a genuine error on your part or there is a seriously problematic assertion that put you, the business or them at risk. What you are doing here is evidence gathering, not arguing. An email like the above provides evidence of:
1. The fact you have had a conversation.
2. What was discussed.
3. What the person’s response was and what the organisation’s response was to that.
4. What the organisation is doing to support the person.
5. A clear expectation and description of behaviour that is to cease or commence.
6. That they have had an opportunity to respond.
When dealing with a bullshitter, I have been known to send such an email for even low key conversations. They must be factual; they must not be combative or emotive, and they should emphasise your goodwill, even if you’re not feeling it.
A key point. It is the bullshitters who will make the complaint, will go to FairWork, WorkSafe etc. So dot every single ‘i’ and cross every single ‘t’. Follow an immaculate process. Get good advice. I have seen one bullshitter bullshit their way through the FairWork conciliation process to land in front of a Commissioner (spending thousands and thousands of dollars on their lawyer in the process) so convinced were they that the employer would blink. They knew their position was solid, so they didn't. Thousands were spent in taxpayer dollars, legal fees and people’s time. The Commissioner in their finding called the applicant for what they were; a bullshitter.
They might have used fancier language than that.