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.

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?