A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 22nd, 2015 by William

There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

The phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute” is often credited to Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum (1810 – 1891), an American showman and businessman remembered for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. However, the phrase most likely came from a banker named David Hannum, who coined the phrase in criticism of P. T. Barnum’s typical customer. It simply means that many people are gullible and there’s no shortage of them. Fact is being gullible, or a sucker, is quite the norm in our society. That’s why scam artists abound and there are so many telemarketers and cyber-scams (like the Nigerian money transfer scam) that it’s a daily topic on the nightly news. This all is enabled by the fact that there’s no shortage of people who will fall for these scams.

None of us think we can ever be fooled, let alone fall for a scam, yet ironically the man (Hannum) who was critical of Barnum’s customers was in fact a sucker himself. As the story goes, back in the 1860s, tobacconist John Hull created an elaborate, money-making hoax in which he had a 10-foot-tall stone statue of a man carved and then buried in Cardiff, New York. The giant stone man (referred to as The Cardiff Giant) was then dug up again and Hull planned to sell it as an archaeological oddity. In 1869, Hannum and four business partners took the bait and paid $37,500 ($657,894 in today’s dollars) for the worthless artifact thinking that they could turn a profit by charging people to get a glimpse of it.

A lot of buzz was generated about the giant, and as thousands of people began to pay good money to see it, it looked like Hannum’s investment was actually going to pay off quite nicely. That is, until P. T. Barnum entered the picture. Seems Barnum built a giant of his own and claimed that it was the true Cardiff Giant. When people flocked to see Barnum’s creation, hapless Hannum supposedly mused at the on-lookers, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Hannum was talking about the masses that are easily deceived and will “fall” for any lie. What Hannum and Barnum did was to perpetrate a grand lie. While lying is part of the fabric of our culture, in today’s workplace world, I’m not so sure it’s the most damaging behavior. I’m convinced that more people practice plain old bullshitting more than lying.

Why do I think the average worker partakes more in bullshitting than flat-out lying? First, understand that most people use these two terms interchangeably to describe the typical behavior they see and practice in the workplace. Let’s take a closer look at the art of bullshitting, how it compares to lying, and the effect it has on the workplace.

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; imposture; an inaccurate or false statement; the charge or accusation of lying. For Hannum and Barnum the false statement was that their statues were the real thing. In contrast, the 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.

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–just as both Hannum and Barnum did. 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.

Here’s a timely example. Everyone who utilizes the professional social media site LinkedIn probably has numerous “skills” and “endorsements” listed on their profile. Along with each skill there are a number of people who supposedly vouch that the person actually possesses that skill. None of those skills are necessarily untruths as we all gain a wide range of experience from what we’re exposed to during our careers. But with all these supposed skills it’s really a matter of degree. Remember one of the descriptors of bullshit is “boastful language” and that’s all those skill lists really are. If we wanted the list to reflect true skills that we’ve gained though our career we’d be listing such things as: “firefighting,” “sabotaging colleagues,” “ass-covering,” or “regurgitating buzzwords.” The list goes on.

An interesting infographic titled, “The Lies We Tell on Resumes,” details the not so surprising statistics on the pervasiveness of lying and bullshitting on resumes. Please visit:

In his 2005 essay, “On Bullshit,” philosopher Harry Frankfurt presents a very detailed contrast of these two concepts: lying and bullshitting. Frankfurt postulates that, “to tell a lie; in order to invent a lie at all, [the liar] 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–fits Hannum and Barnum to a tee.

Interestingly, according to Frankfurt, “a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is false, as long as he himself ‘believes’ that the statement is true and intends, by making it, to deceive. It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such condition.”

While both lies and bullshit can either be true or false, bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements. As Frankfurt notes, “this indifference to how things [really] are is the essence of bullshit.” Fact is in the workplace bullshitting actually better serves our purposes, especially when we want to change another’s perceptions of us.

Why is understanding the difference 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 proliferates throughout the workplace because, as Frankfurt tells us, “the risk of being caught is about the same in each case; [however] the consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar.” If you lie on your resume about having a college degree, for instance, you’ll probably get fired. However, nothing happens when you list bullshit skills and experience.

Frankfurt explains, “bull pertains to tasks that are pointless in that they have nothing much to do with the primary intent or justifying purpose of the enterprise which requires them.” In other words they contribute nothing toward the general goals of the organization. Just as in the long run skills listed on your resume or on LinkedIn have little bearing on being successful in a job.

In this way the bullshit flung around the workplace creates an environment that’s not based in reality. We may think that bullshitting is harmless and only a sucker would believe all he hears. However, Frankfurt explains there’s a further bad side effect to bullshitting. As he tells us: “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.”

What does that mean? It means because there’s so much bullshit flying around the workplace, it clouds reality, and as such, people can’t trust that reality and thus they become focused only on being true to their own nature. It helps explain why our society is so self-absorbed. 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.

However, the bigger problem is that being suckered by bullshit becomes the motivation for someone to bullshit in retaliation. This perpetuates the bullshit syndrome that has overtaken many a workplace. Bullshit then becomes the primary factor in defining an organization and molding the 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.”

In 1928, sociologist W. I. Thomas formulated a theory of sociology called “The Thomas Theorem.” Simply stated, it says that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Said another way, if men define their reality through bullshit, then their reality is bullshit. This can also be viewed as the “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

The bottom line is that we all get suckered by all the bullshit we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Its human nature to believe others’ bullshit and at the same time spew the same bullshit with the hope that others will be suckered into believing. All this contributes to a workplace reality based on dysfunctional bullshit. Is your workplace a self-fulfilling prophesy of dysfunctionality waiting to happen because you actively contribute to the bullshit syndrome? This is why workplace life is “the greatest show on earth.” Just sayin’…

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