Business and Bullshit

Is bullshit bad for business? On the surface, it seems like the answer should be yes, but I recently read Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and I have to admit – I’m having second thoughts. Frankfurt contrasts bullshit with lying. Liars know the truth, but tell you something else. Bullshitters don’t care about whether or not what they say is true. Bullshit can be true or false, but ultimately, it is simply a means to an end. Frankfurt would argue that bullshit is more dangerous for society than lying. Is the same true for business?

Buinesspeople like to talk about “managing expectations.” We answer questions in generic ways that leave our options open until we can find out the real answer. Is that just a way we use bullshit? If so, is it a bad business practice?

We can’t know everything, so we often use bullshit instead of saying “I don’t know.” A customer asks if a certain feature is planned for a future software release. If you really don’t know, is it better to say so, or to give them some bullshit? I’ve seen some software features that are “on the roadmap” forever. Salespeople use that line because it keeps a potential customer in the loop. That can be a good thing because the customer will stay in touch and provide you with information about what they would like to see in your product. That is helpful to you, and no harm is done to them if they aren’t making a buying decision based on your bullshit.

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The underlying question that I’m getting at is this – if you don’t know the answer to something, should you admit that and risk the consequences of an “I don’t know,” or should say whatever you need to say to keep the conversation going until you find out an answer? On the surface, it really seems harmless, but is it a step down a slippery slope that ends up ruining the value of truth and honesty in a company?

  • As an auditor I certainly understand the value of being vague or leaving doors open. However as a consumer, I’m completely turned off by it. When buying a car, mobile phone, etc. I generally despise any attempt to avoid the absolute truth. I’m much more willing to trust someone who admits to not having the answer, or research it, rather than trying to just tell me what I want to hear.

    For example, just the other day I made it all my way to ‘2nd level advanced technical support’ at a mobile phone carrier trying to find out exactly what streaming video formats a particular phone’s proprietary media player supports. I never got the answer! However, I had to push through 6 responses that were completed crap. “Oh, it will probably support what you’re looking for.” How hard can it be to get this information!? In fact, I was able to find more information on independent blogs while on hold than the actual sales/support people themselves. Canned, vague, generic responses do not cut it.

    I have found that it’s better to take an interview/interrogation approach when trying to get to the truth. These people squirm when asked questions requiring a yes/no response.

  • I guess a simple way to look at this question is to turn it around: As a customer of a company, do you want them to bullshit you, or to be honest?

    Are you going to keep buying from the software company that keeps the features you need “on the road map” indefinitely?

    Positive, long-term, trusting relations between companies and customers go best without bullshit.

  • Two problems with bullshit (of the top):
    1) You believe your own bullshit and become a phony and a moron.
    2) Successful bullshit encourages you to bullshit more. Soon all you are is bullshit right up to your eyeballs.

  • I just finished the same book. I’m inclined to think that bullshit has a useful place in life. The weekly meetings of Parliament (in the Bronx) is filled with bullshit.

    But is has no place in business dealings. The reason? It compromises necessary relationships.

    Finally, I’m reminded of the First Law: Know what you know, know what you don’t know, and know who knows what you don’t know. Bullshit works against the law.

  • So, am I reading this correctly by seeing it say, ‘Engaging in vanity [don’t want to admit we don’t know] and/or covering up our own incompetence [we’re supposed to know something, but don’t] is a positive, accepted business practice’?

    And did I really read, ‘Lying to your customers [about your intent to implement a feature] is good because then you find out what they really want’?

    Was it bullshit when Enron was giving “positively spun forecasts of revenue”? I mean, it could reasonably be said that, given all of the side deals, the spokesmouth didn’t know the truth.

    I don’t think we need to look for a slippery slope here.


  • jav

    There is another aspect to this, when I am buying something I am already discounting my expectations because I expect some bullshit from a salesperson. So is a salesperson better off avoiding BS or is he hurting himself by consciously avoiding BS.

    My suggestion would be to mentally note down all the BS that was peddled, get back to the product manager and ask which of it is right and which is wrong, and go back to the customer BEFORE the deal gets signed off and tell him that he in fact misspoke or us a different diplomatic term. If he has to sign the deal right away then it is better not to BS as it would come back to bite him.

  • I’m a little extreme on this one.

    I think managing expectations is itself a form of lying–either about what you’re going to do, or about what you’re doing.

    I also think bullshit is quite harmful in business–to the one doing the bullshitting. If I ask a question of someone who’s trying to sell me (or otherwise represent the company) and they bullshit me, they have failed to differentiate themselves from the vast population of bullshitters out there who themselves, by and large, bullshit.

    But if they actually tell me the truth–whatever it may be, including most particularly “I don’t know,” then I know I have encountered someone very vauable–someone who tells the truth. A truth-teller. Someone I can trust.

    Because who’s going to lie about that?

    And the impact on me of someone who tells the truth is quite strong. First of all, I’m more likely to buy what they’re selling if I trust them (assuming the product or service is within acceptable bounds of quality for me). But second, I am vastly more likely to return to you when I need what you have to sell. And to tell others. And so on.

    The problem with bullshitters is they never look past the transaction. They think life is a series of transactions. They forget that life is a set of relationships, represented in a series of transactions. A bullshitter lives to impress me, to get the sale. A truth-teller is focused on helping me, not himself; believing that in the long run, he will benefit more by having done the right thing in each transaction. And, he’d be right

  • As a real-life example, David Maister has a great story on a company that screws up with a major customer and faces the choice of whether or not to bullshit:

  • This whole issue depends on the salesperson; on his conscience. If the sales person decides that he would not lie to his customers and wants to make a long lasting relationship then he would not do this. On the contrary, if a sales person thinks that he has to sale a product, it doesn’t matter whether it is defective or does not fulfill customer’s need,how many units sold matters most then he can “BULLSHIT.” No one can control it; not the government, not the customer, not the company. Only a salesman has to decide which path he/she should go.

  • Oricale174

    I think your all missing a very important point. Regardless of your opinions about bullshit. It exist in all cultures and has since people started talking. It ain’t going away. LEARN TO DEAL WITH IT!

  • Rod Serling

    I agree. However many firms foster cultural BS by unethical claims.Take for example Trinity Custom Homes in Ga.They claim to have 40 years in business yet have only been around since 2003!