A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 15th, 2013 by William

The Good Old Days

“If you believe it, it isn’t a lie” -George Costanza, Seinfeld

Have you ever found yourself telling a story about a previous job, or project, (or something you’ve done) and consciously, or unconsciously, embellished it ever so slightly? As time passes even our bad experiences seem to not be that bad after all. Thus, over time, the embellishment will build up, like compound interest; to the point where what was originally a steaming POS seems like the crown jewels. We also do this with our past good experiences–continuing to build them up. Self-deception is at the root of why whenever we talk of our past we remember it as “the good old days.”

The only problem with this type behavior is that if you repeat these trumped-up stories enough times you start believing them.

Self-deception is the process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance, significance, or importance of bad experiences and embellishing them despite opposing evidence and logical argument to the contrary. When we practice self-deception we are convincing ourselves of the new story (our story and we’re sticking to it) so that we can rationalize our past as not having been as bad as it really was–or as being better than it really was. Most often we do this with our memory of bad jobs and failed projects that we may have endured. Interestingly we usually never portray evil people that we’ve met along the way as being better than they really were, in fact we demonize them even more. But even that is self-deception.

Such is the subtle power of self-deception–a powerful mechanism that can be used to mask deep-seated insecurities, make our past seem tolerable and project blame for our failings onto others. We distort facts to support our particular point of view–our recall of history–or to sustain our beliefs about the kind of person we are or want to be. This denial of reality is most often an unconscious, psychological defense mechanism designed to ward off unacceptable or inconvenient truths. In psychology this is called the “confirmation bias;” a tendency for people to only seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing view points, and subsequently ignore information that goes against them.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair’s once said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Sinclair hit the nail on the head when it comes to explaining why we practice self-deception in our jobs. Our jobs many times depend on it. Probably the most common practice of self-deception is what we write in our resumes. While I’m not accusing everyone of lying on their resume, I am sure that all of us have stretched the truth here and there–admit it. You see it every day on LinkedIn where people embellish their profiles by claiming every skill imaginable.

You might think that someone practicing self-deception is only lying to themselves. So what–if someone wants to live in a state of denial, so be it–that’s their problem. However, the effects of self-deception run much deeper. The problem is that this behavior affects everyone and is especially deadly in the workplace. It leads to what my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw is all about–dysfunctional workplaces.

These lies (?) we tell ourselves and others may seem innocuous and harmless but they contribute to molding the culture present in any workplace organization. Since for all of us “perception is more important than fact,” self-deception helps create a workplace culture based on misconceptions. No wonder organizational amnesia runs rampant in today’s workplace.

That all said I’m personally not convinced that self-deception is necessarily all about lying. Personally I think “bullshitting” is what’s at the heart of our self-deceptions.

I’ll explain why.

Dictionary.com defines a lie as: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood; something intended or serving to convey a false impression; an inaccurate or false statement; the charge or accusation of lying.

In contrast, the dictionary.com definition of bullshit is: foolish, deceitful, or boastful language; something worthless, or insincere; insolent talk or behavior; to speak foolishly; to engage in idle conversation.

Why do I think the average worker partakes more in bullshitting than lying? First, understand that most people use these two terms interchangeably to describe the typical behavior they see and practice in the workplace. At first blush you may contend that our self-deceptions certainly falls under that definition. However, when we look closer at the definitions, the difference stands out.

In the definition of lying, the word “false” appears numerous times, yet in the definition of bullshit, it doesn’t appear at all. Since a falsehood is defined as an untruth, a lie is therefore the telling of an untruth. On the other hand bullshitting is boastful, worthless, insincere language. There’s a big difference. Boastful, worthless, insincere language doesn’t necessarily equate to an untruth.

In his essay, “On Bullshit,” philosopher Harry Frankfurt presents a very detailed contrast of these two concepts. Frankfurt postulates that the liar, “to tell a lie; in order to invent a lie at all, must think he knows the truth.”  That’s an important point. The liar knows, or thinks he knows, the truth, and then consciously elects to present the opposite.

Remember what George Costanza said. This is why self-deception is not a lie. We actually begin to believe the crap we fling thus making them (to us) not a lie. According to Frankfurt, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such condition.” The key is the intent to deceive others that’s associated with the lie. We don’t tell these embellished stories to deceive others so much as to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

While both lies and bullshit can either be true or false, bullshitters in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements. Isn’t this the reason why we self-deceive? As Frankfurt notes, “this indifference to how things are is the essence of bullshit.”

To me, it seems that bullshitting better serves our need to self-deceive, especially when we want to change another’s perceptions of us.

Why is my diatribe on bullshit important? Because, as Frankfurt explains, “bullshitting one’s way through [life]; not merely producing one instance of bullshit, [but] producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require” is common behavior.

People become masters at this “art,” and it spreads like wildfire throughout the workplace. In this way the bullshit flung around the workplace creates an environment that’s not based in reality. Frankfurt explains it best: “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources; in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore [we] reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which [the worker] might hope to identify as the truth about things, [the worker] devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”  In other words our self-deceptive bullshitting explains the fact that we are such a self-centered society.

Our self-deception then becomes the motivation for someone to bullshit in retaliation, thus perpetuating the bullshit syndrome that has overtaken the average workplace. Bullshitting thus becomes one way in which people practice what’s called “impression management,” since the only thing they can truly control (or so they think) is their own image. It’s also called building your “brand.”

Bullshit becomes the primary factor in defining the people, and thus the organization, and it molds the organization’s culture. In fact, one might say that bullshit is the fuel that powers the engine of business. For this reason, Frankfurt claims, “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Think about it. The next time you describe a past experience, or update your profile on LinkedIn, are you telling it “as it is” or are you bullshitting just a bit? I think I know the answer.


One Response to “The Good Old Days”
  1. Good to see real expertise on display. Your contribution is most welcome.

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