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Beyond Bullsh*t


Published Jul 1, 2008 8:01 AM

Photos by Henry Blackham

Few workplace challenges are as vexing as figuring out the difference between good business communications and the kind of verbal fog that slows production, hampers creativity and creates misunderstandings among teammates. But UCLA Anderson School of Management Professor Samuel Culbert separates straight talk from nonsense in his new book, Beyond Bullsh*t. Now Culbert offers Bruin alumni his expert advice on the dynamics of corporate baloney and why it has become the etiquette of choice in corporate communications.

By Samuel Culbert Ph.D. '66

The disconnect between straight talk and bullsh*t

Everyone says that straight talk is the ultimate effectiveness enhancer, but everyone also complains they don't get it nearly enough. We've all heard and probably made the classic office complaint, "all the bullsh*t I have to put up with at work." But few of us see that our frustrations are the result of limitations in how we view events or realize that, for others, we are a source of baloney.

Necessary but not necessarily evil

The surprise finding that contradicts what most people believe is that being disingenuous is essential for getting out of situations that otherwise would spark heated and fruitless fights. People find bullsh*t necessary for putting their best foot forward when interacting with people they want to impress. We rely on it when faced with situations we find offensive, such as attending a meeting to discuss topics already decided or participating in a meaningless performance review. In countless situations, bullsh*t serves as the WD-40 that gets individuals past glitch points without excessive friction.

The central glitch point

Just as in the history of the world no one ever washed a rental car, no one in corporate life ever advocated something on the grounds that it served an essential corporate good that was not in their self-interest. We live in a work culture that refuses to accept the roles that self-interest and personal bias play. Even people who give lip service to this fact put others down when they perceive bias and not being "objective." This results in people justifying what they do, how they operate, and what they seek in their own self-interest on the grounds that their actions were dictated solely by doing what the company most needed.

Keep it real

The critical thing in dealing with bullsh*t is not to get taken in by what is not real. People don't grouse as long as they recognize the presence of nonsense and can object to it when it gets in their way. On the other hand, people get upset when they discover they were influenced by baloney that escaped their notice or when there is pretense they don't like but can't avoid participating in. In the end there just are too many political events, personal agendas and sensitivities in play for people to recognize everything that's taking place or to possess sufficient resources to avoid everything they find bothersome.

Straight talk and spin

Everyone knows that succeeding at work requires spin, to withhold some of what they know and pretend to believe things that they know are untrue. The difference between bullsh*t and straight talk is intent. When telling bullsh*t, the spin is aimed at getting support for a self-interested agenda with little concern for the interests of others. With straight talk, the spin is a calculated effort to tell as much truth as possible by steering around the sensitivities of others. It's a way to build a relationship that subsequently allows deeper truths to be exchanged. The challenge is to keep the spin minimal so that when full disclosure is possible, the person you're spinning won't find the initial message off the mark.

Truth can be false

Truth-telling becomes bullsh*t when someone presents their truth as "the truth," as if every other rational thinking person would see things as they do. It also becomes bullsh*t when the timing conveniently advances the truth-teller's agenda. Even candid give-and-take conversations where everything exchanged is truthful can be bullsh*t. For example, when facts that might work against a communicator's self-interests are "inadvertently" withheld. When my then-teenaged son was campaigning for a cell phone, I asked him, "Why do you need a cell phone, Charles?" His answer: "So you can always get a hold of me when you need me." Sure!

If you want straight talk, you have to listen

Few people will trust you enough to talk straight without evidence that you are able to hear their words as they intend them. To get the proper context, you need to learn about a person's life and agendas. Don't presume that you have agreement when people nod their heads affirmatively. While they may agree, it's just as likely to be a self-protective sham. On the other hand, don't presume that anything you took pains to state clearly was correctly understood. I make this point by telling powerful executives, "If you want to know what you said, you need to ask the other person what he or she heard."

What to do when you're puzzled by what you hear

Ask yourself, "Why am I getting these words and/or actions now?" The critical issue is now. You might even matter-of-factly ask the person, "Why did you think to tell me this/do this now?" Asking provides an opportunity for people to clarify what they may have never meant to conceal. If the explanation seems authentic, you've got an opportunity to respond in kind and to take a step forward in building a straight-talk relationship. On the other hand, when you are given a bullsh*t statement and have a serious need for a thoughtfully considered truth, you might merely look the other person in the eye and, with a humorous voice, ask, "Come on, do you actually believe what you are telling me?" Remember that everyone uses bullsh*t and you want to make it possible for people to backtrack without consequence.

Plain Speaking

Find out more about Professor Culbert's insight into effective corporate communicating; read excerpts from Beyond Bullsh*t; and learn more about the author at

Accept imperfection

A straight-talk relationship requires acceptance of two often-overlooked facts of human nature. The first is that no matter how terrific the immediate chemistry with someone might be, eventually you are going to encounter flaws that bother you. Second, the reason any flaw bothers you to the point of distraction is you. Only imperfect people inhabit this planet and the majority of imperfections don't tick you off. The ones that do are traceable to your personal history, sensitivities and the deficiencies that annoy you in yourself. Sometimes you can get beyond initial reactions to someone's "deficiencies" by contacting their friends and asking them what they value in that individual. Then ask them for advice in dealing with those qualities that put you off.

Ask questions

Included in Beyond Bullsh*t is a set of get-to-know-someone questions I've spent 20 years putting together. The first is most revealing. It asks what a person sees as their bum rap. Everyone has a bum rap — a behavior that others point to as a negative personal attribute. Listening to people explain their bum rap will help you not take offense when, later on, that behavior is manifest.

Practice I-Speak

I-Speak is a first-person pronoun phrasing where you own your views and don't imply that anyone else would interpret events as you do. Using I-Speak (I think, I conclude, I believe, etc.) leaves room for another person to disagree and to state their different viewpoints and beliefs. The goal in I-Speak is interactive dialogue, not instant "a-ha" agreement that your viewpoint is superior to what the other person previously thought was correct.