It was living in Florida in the summer of 2000 when Mrs. Businesspundit and I stumbled upon a wonderful Italian restaurant called Carrabbas. I love Italian food, so everything on the menu looked good to me, but I eventually decided to try a dish called the Chicken Bryan. It's a weird name for a dish, and as I sat there, I began to wonder if it was really pronounced the way it looked. I scanned the menu for evidence. Pollo Rosa Maria. Insalata Carrabba. Sure enough, there were foreign words in other places on the menu. It must not be Bryan like the name.
The waiter asked for my order.
"I'll have the chicken breee-ionn", I said, hoping I nailed the pronunciation.
The waiter gave me a blank stare.
I pointed at the dish on the menu.
"The Chicken Bryan," he asked?
Yes. That's what I want. So it is pronounced the way it looks. I'll be going now. What an idiotic move.
I stayed and ate my lunch, much to the delight of Mrs. Businesspundit who repeatedly asked me if the chicken bree-ion was any good. That's the price I had to pay for trying to sound smart. Sometimes those bets pay off. Other times they don't.
Laurence Haughton, a frequent commenter on this site, wrote a book a couple of years ago called It's Not What You Say, It's What You Do. But does the office really work that way, or do we care less about what people do and more about what people say? We want to reward people for performance, but do we sometimes build corporate cultures that encourage BS more than anything else? Like my attempt at sounding suave to the waiter, are your co-workers more focused on trying to say the right thing instead of doing the right thing?
That is not a sign of a healthy company.
So to help you avoid the business pundits out there, the people who are all talk and no action, here are 7 things you can do to sound smarter than you really are. Some of you will use them for evil, but I hope most of you add them to your BS detectors, and use them to detect the wrong people at your company.
1. Develop slick skin – When someone gives you work to do, the first thing you do is figure out the possibilities for blame so that nothing bad ever sticks to you. That report didn't get finished? It's because you were waiting for input from John. Of course, you weren't clear to John that he would be the bottleneck, but that's irrelevant now.
2. Speak in tongues – Meaningless, circular conversation almost always works. Most people will sit quietly in a meeting, thinking you are wrong but afraid to call you out on it. Spouting off vague gibberish makes people think they are the dumb ones, not you. Throw out language that would make a Pentecostal proud.
3. Preach change, then avoid it – No one likes to stay put. Everyone loves the excitement of change and progress, that is, until it directly impacts them and they are required to do real work. Give them them all the excitement of change without the pain. Talk about it, but never follow through. Blame it one someone else, and then preach a new change.
4. Operate in crisis mode – Well run companies are boring. When people are on top of things, there is too much time to have fun and work on improving the business. That doesn't get the adrenaline pumping like a good crisis. Create one, run around like a crazy person, and you will look important.
5. Wait until the last minute – This ties in well with number 4. Waiting until the last minute is a great way to create a crisis out of nothing. If someone asks for your input on something, tell them it's fine without really looking at it. Don't give it a real thought until it's in final public review. Then you can make your negative comments in front of everyone. You look smart. The presenter looks dumb. And you get to be the hero by creating a crisis and fixing it.
6. Focus on intangibles – If you make communication, goals, and results clear and direct, you are in danger of being held accountable. Don't criticize your peers or subordinates for not making their numbers. Focus on things that aren't measurable, like their lack of leadership, their lousy communication skills, or their failure to be a team player. These criticisms are easy to pin on almost anyone.
7. Make up support for your cause – People want to see assertions grounded, so make them up. Say that 87% of people agree with you per some study in Forbes magazine. No one is going to look it up, and if they do, you just say it must have been Fortune. Appeal to authority. Even if that authority is wrong, most people won't think about it long enough to realize that.
Bonus tip – Talk about what is popular, not what is substantive – Talk in soundbytes, and quote recent news headlines. People will think you are smart and on top of things, even if you really have no clue.
If you try these tips, you may occasionally stumble, like I did when I gave a fancy name for Chicken Bryan. But by trying to sound smart, you will fool most of the people most of the time.
And finally, if you really are smart and you recognize these things happening at your workplace, polish up the resume and find another job before the style over substance mentality rubs off on you.