The No BS Rule

First published in Mediapost’s Search Insider – April 18, 2013

I have wasted a significant portion of my life dealing with BS. Mea culpa. I decided to become a marketer and it just comes with the territory. But here’s the thing. Maybe it’s cause I’m older, maybe it’s because I’m just getting grumpier, but I’m getting less and less tolerant of BS.

After one particular day when the scent of BS hung heavy in the air, I wondered, why? Why do we have to put up with BS anyway?  What would my job be like sans-BS? Trust me, it’s a liberating mental exercise. Try it.

How often, each and every day, do you have to exert extra effort, take on extra tasks, send extra emails, or have extra meetings, just because of BS? And here’s the thing: none of this extra work is productive. Zero. Zilch. It’s all just spinning our wheels, trying to move forward and get over the mound of BS in our way. In fact, in most cases, BS puts us in reverse. We lose ground because of it. I have no empirical evidence on this, but I suspect that a workplace would be at least 10 times more efficient and effective without BS.

In 2004 Bob Sutton had an epiphany when he wrote the original No Asshole Rule in the Harvest Business Review. He posed a bold question: What could a workplace be like without assholes? I pose a follow-up question: How much more productive could we be if we eliminated BS?

I’m not sure if it’s a hard and fast rule, but it seems that the degree of BS corresponds directly to the size of the company. Many small start-ups have little to no operational BS (depending on the personalities involved). In huge companies, BS is the operational norm. I think BS is naturally present in any random group of people, but at some point in a company’s growth curve, BS seems to move from being an irritation to be eradicated to being a foundational rule of engagement. BS begets BS.

All BS is not the same. Some varieties are more toxic than other. Here are some of the common types I’ve encountered.

Cover-My-Butt BS: “I screwed up and I don’t want to admit it” 

This is one of the most common varieties of BS. Tremendous amounts of corporate effort are expending covering collective butts.  Look, if you suck on a consistent basis, I should be able to say you suck. Even if you’re my boss.

Incompetence is poison for an organization. And, if I am competent but still screwed up, I should be in an environment where I’m not afraid of being crucified for my mistake. Everyone screws up.  Screwing up and incompetence is not necessarily the same thing. Risk-takers, visionaries and leaders have learned the importance of developing a disciplined approach to screwing up.

Stop using BS to cover incompetence. It sucks the energy out of any organization.

I’m Smarter/Bigger/More Powerful Than You BS

This type of BS is particularly nefarious, because it strikes at the upper levels of the organization. Executives generate huge clouds of intentional BS waging turf wars to establish corporate lines of power. Egos and BS are positively correlated in the workplace. The dangerous thing about this is that generally the executive making the call is so far removed from the situation that she has no perspective on it. But that doesn’t stop the BS. You might as well have two rams butting it out head to head in the boardroom. It’s just as productive and a lot more thrilling to watch.

This strain of BS can stop corporate strategy in its tracks. It usually comes disguised as mission statements, vision statements, core values or other BS-laden documents that have zero relevance to the real world. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big believer in true corporate strategy, but 99% of what passes for this is pure BS.  It accomplishes nothing.

Throw it out and start over with something real.

I Hate Change/I Don’t Want To Do This BS

The final type of BS is more common on the front lines.  The cause is simple. We just don’t want to do something. So we create a BS screen to hide the real reason why we don’t want to do it. This is usually tied to one of the two previous types of BS. Either we’re lazy and/or incompetent and don’t want to do the thing (see Cover My Butt BS) or a boss is forcing us to do something stupid (I’m Smarter/Bigger/More Powerful than You BS). Either way, the natural reaction is to start BSing.

I believe we should all start actively seeking out BS and calling people on it. It shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace. And I realize that it’s human nature. You can’t change human nature, right? Well, having sex is pretty natural too, and we don’t tolerate open orgies in the workplace.

It’s all a matter of choice and agreement. Let’s at least have the discussion. I believe it’s one worth having.

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