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Politics — Lying Versus Bullshitting

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

The presidential campaign is about to lurch into high gear and the lying is flying. Or is it? Are the candidates lying or are they bullshitting us? The two concepts are related but not the same.

Let’s take an example from Donald Trump. Trump says that he will build a wall along our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. Many neutral observers claim that it would be prohibitively expensive to build a useful (that is, impenetrable) wall along the entire border. They also suggest that it’s ludicrous to believe that Mexico would pay for it. So is Trump lying or is he bullshitting?

To answer the question, I dug out an essay by the Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. Originally published in 1986, the essay is aptly tilted, On Bullshit. * Frankfurt lays out the essential differences between lying and bullshit (with a side trip through humbug).

Frankfurt argues that both bullshit and lying are deceptive – but they’re deceptive in different ways. The liar aims to deceive us about reality and “the way things are.” A liar might say that he has a million dollars when he’s actually flat broke. A bullshitter, on the other hand, aims to deceive us about his purpose. Frankfurt writes, “His eye is not on the facts at all…. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Further, a liar knows the truth and seeks to conceal it. He opposes the truth. By contrast, a bullshitter may or may not know what the truth is – and certainly doesn’t care. Indeed, he may even be telling the truth. Making a true statement or a false statement is beside the point. As Frankfurt notes, “…the truth … of his statements is of no central interest to him.”

A liar is under numerous constraints. He knows the truth and, “…to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” A bullshitter has no such constraints. He can make everything up, including the context and the backstory. Instead of making a statement about reality, he invents his own reality.

Indeed, the bullshitter avoids the “authority of the truth” altogether. Frankfurt writes that, “He pays no attention to [the truth] at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

So is Trump lying or bullshitting about the wall? I’m guessing that he’s bullshitting. He doesn’t seem to care whether his statement is true or false. That’s beside the point. He just makes stuff up to suit his purpose.

So, if making a true statement (or a false one, for that matter), is beside the point, what is his hidden agenda? I think there are two:

  • To maximize attention and press coverage – every time Trump makes an outrageous statement, journalists write about it. Often times, they point out that the statement is not true. But that’s beside the point. Trump doesn’t care – nor do his followers, apparently. The point is to get elected and that requires attention and saturation coverage.
  • To soak up his opponents’ time – Trump’s opponents often make detailed rebuttals of his claims. They want to set the record straight. But as long as they’re doing that, they’re on Trump’s turf. He’s the center of attention. It’s political rope-a-dope. I’ve noticed that Trump rarely defends his points in any logical way. He simply repeats them, thus causing his opponents to redouble their efforts to prove him wrong. He gets their goat because they think he’s lying when, in fact, he’s bullshitting. Setting the record straight is useless if truth and falsity are beside the point.

So how can Trump’s opponents – Johnson and Clinton – best deal with his bullshitting? To the maximum extent possible, they should ignore him. Don’t get caught up in the trap of making him the center of attention. When a journalist asks about an outrageous Trump statement, don’t take the bait. Just say something along the lines of, “Well, we all know that he’s a world-class bullshitter. Let’s talk about something more useful.”

* Frankfurts’ essay was originally published in The Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986. It was then republished in 2005 as a small book. I’ve depended on the version that’s found here.

Corporate Culture: Counting The Uncountable

Stand by me.

You can’t measure love.

I was in a meeting not long ago with a client whose organization is undergoing a significant transformation. We were discussing what needed to change and how we might promote the appropriate change efforts. A senior executive spoke up to say, “Well, you get what you measure.” Nobody challenged the assumption behind the thought and we began to focus on how to measure change in the organization.

I had, of course, heard similar statements many times before. Business schools emphasize measurement as a key ingredient of management. As a leader, you point the way, establish some key measurements, and then harvest the results. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But think about the things that we don’t bother to measure – or that we don’t know how to measure. These include love, respect, hope, initiative, creativity, open-mindedness, ability to resolve conflicts, receptiveness to new ideas, focus, drive, and resilience. Do we really not care about these things?

We tell managers that the most important thing they can do is build a positive, engaging organizational culture. (See here and here). We also tell them they can only get what they measure. Yet many of the components of culture are simply not measureable. I have yet to hear a manager say, “In the third quarter, we increased corporate resilience by 3.2% compared with the same quarter in the previous year.”

So, how do we help managers build a positive culture even when they can’t measure it? Here are some thoughts:

  • The answer is not a number on a piece of paper. It’s OK to look at numbers but we need to remember that a number is an abstraction of a measurement that is an abstraction of reality. Looking only at numbers is like driving your car by looking only at the speedometer.
  • Trust is an unrecognized but important ingredient. We focus on measurement partially because we don’t trust our eyes, and ears, and subordinates. A measurement is supposed to give us an “objective” view of the organization. But a measurement is only as objective as the person taking the measurement – which is to say, not very. If we can create a culture built on trust, we can learn more about our organization than a measurement will ever tell us. (In this regard, it’s useful to review Edwards Deming’s 14 points of management and his red bead experiment).
  • Learning to observe is more important than learning to measure. We forget that measurement is just one form of observation. Management by walking around still works. Taking groups of employees out to dinner will teach you more than a spreadsheet will. Practice being naïve – ask questions that a rookie would ask. You may think you don’t need to ask certain questions because you already know the answer. But you’re probably wrong.
  • A good conversation is more important than a staff meeting. Staff meetings can be useful but they’re also very structured. You get the information that the structure permits. A good conversation is much more open-ended. You can wander about until you touch on the really important issues.
  • Questions are more important than answers. A number from a measurement purports to give us an answer. But it only answers the question you asked – and the answer may not be accurate. Learn how to ask probing questions that get rich and unexpected answers. Tip: a good course on critical thinking will help.

I think we obsess about measurement because we have a bad case of physics envy. We want our organization to behave like a physics experiment. If we apply Force X, we get Result Y. It doesn’t work that way and never will. Time to get over the measurement mania.

The Porcelain Elephant In The Room

We need to talk.

We need to talk.

I subscribe to Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Management Tip of the Day and, every business day, I get a one-paragraph idea for improving my communication and management skills. It’s an intriguing way to get exposed to a wide-range of ideas in short period of time. (Click here to subscribe).

A recent tip summarized how to “Avoid Fighting With Your Spouse When You Get Home From Work.” The article notes “It’s unrealistic and unhelpful for couples to expect that they’ll automatically be in sync when they arrive home; different needs, different recovery times, and different experiences…make it more likely that you’ll be out of sync.”

It’s a good point and it reminds me of a story from a young colleague of mine named Molly. Molly and her husband have been married for just a few years and they both work outside the home. They’re settling in to their careers and their jobs are demanding. They noticed that, when they arrive home, their emotional states are often “out of sync.”

Sometimes Molly would arrive home after a tough day and notice something askew in the house. She might stew on it a bit and, when her husband arrived home, she would “pounce” on him. Sometimes, it’s the other way round – husband arrives home first, stews on something, and pounces on an unsuspecting Molly when she arrives. I suspect that all married couples have had similar experiences.

What makes Molly and her husband different is that they realized that neither one of them was at fault. It wasn’t his or her fault. Rather, it was a question of timing and the degree to which they were in or out of sync emotionally.

So they decided to … buy a porcelain elephant. They also agreed to a timing-and-discussion protocol. The porcelain elephant normally sits on a bookshelf. However, if either Molly or her husband is stewing about something, he or she moves the elephant to a coffee table in the living room. It’s a quiet signal that “We need to talk.”

Let’s replay the same scenario. Molly arrives home in a bad mood, notices something askew in the house, stews about it, and … moves the elephant to the coffee table. Her husband arrives home and notices the elephant. He can immediately ask her what’s wrong or – if he’s really not in the right mood – he can ignore it for up to 12 hours. They’ve agreed that, when the elephant comes out, they’ll have a meaningful conversation to resolve the issue, but not necessarily upon walking in the door.

I think it’s a genius move and a very mature strategy for a young couple. It ensures that the conversation happens while leaving some flexibility for both parties to get in sync emotionally. As the HBR article notes, don’t have the conversation “…right when you get home. Set aside some time to talk when you’re both feeling more relaxed.” Molly and her husband have figured out exactly how to do that.

The Art Of Transformation

grace hartigan the king is dead liteWhat’s the difference between an art and a craft?

A traditional definition focuses on differences in expectations and outcomes. With a craft, we know precisely what the outcome will be, even before we start. We have a set of instructions and, if followed faithfully, the outcome is guaranteed.

By contrast, an artist doesn’t know what the outcome will be. Creating an artwork involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. An artist explores the unknown and aims to give us new insights. A good artwork may not be beautiful in a classic sense, but it is always imaginative. A craftsman, on the other hand, creates the expected and delivers beauty and pleasure through execution more than imagination.

I thought of these distinctions the other day when I toured a major new exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism*, at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition highlights a dozen leaders of the abstract expressionist movement and their work from roughly 1945 to 1960. Here’s how two of the artists describe the creative process:

  • Grace Hartigan: “Eventually, the painting tells you what it wants to be.”
  • Jay DeFeo: “When I start, I don’t know what’s going to happen. When you’re dancing, you don’t stop to think: now I’ll take a step … you allow it to flow.”

It occurs to me that the distinction between art and craft also applies to organizational development. Change management is a craft. Organizational transformation is an art.

We often invoke change management when we begin a concise and well-delineated project. We understand the boundaries and the players. We move through well-defined phases that we can measure objectively. We expect changes to occur between people – perhaps with new reporting structures and alignments. Change management is not easy to master but it seems to me that it is a craft. We often celebrate the end result. We can do that precisely because it is a craft – we know when the process ends.

Organizational transformation is much more like an art. When we seek to transform an organization’s culture, we have only a fuzzy idea of where we’re going. Milestones exist but they’re not well defined. Transformation requires changes within people rather than only between people. We can’t see those changes; nor can we measure them. If we try to measure the unmeasurable, we’ll go off course. Like any other art, transformation involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. Paraphrasing Grace Hartigan, “Eventually, the organization tells you what it wants to be.” The secret to success is listening, not measuring.

I sometimes ask my artist friends how they know when a piece they’re working on is finished. None of them has very good answers. Some say they “just know”. Others say that they just get tired of it. Others say that it’s never finished. Whenever they see it again, they’re tempted to make “just a few minor changes.”

It occurs to me that I’ve never been to a party to celebrate an organizational transformation. Perhaps it’s because we just don’t know when the transformation is finished. It’s an art not a craft.

*The Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit is both superb and unexpected. The paintings are exciting and energetic. The painters are almost anonymous. This is the first major exhibition – anywhere in the world — of the women who energized the abstract expressionist movement. That it happened in my hometown makes me more than just a little bit proud. You can see it – and should see it — until September 25th.

The painting illustrating this article is Grace Hartigan’s The King Is Dead, from 1960.

Do Nudges Work? Should We Use Them?

It's for your own good.

It’s for your own good.

Ever since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge in 2008, we’ve been debating the ethics and practicality of “nudging” people into making the “right” decisions.

Thaler and Sunstein mine the same intellectual vein worked by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Dan Ariely, and Charles Duhigg. We may think we make rational decisions but we have biases, habits, and quirks that inject a degree of irrationality into every decision we make. While the other researchers explain how our heuristics work, Thaler and Sunstein give practical advice for nudging people toward rational decisions that serve their best interests.

Thaler and Sunstein refer to their work as “libertarian paternalism”. It sounds like an oxymoron but the basic idea is that you still have the right to screw up your life by making bad decisions. At the same time, we (whoever “we” is) will nudge you into making decisions that are good for you.

Most observers seem to have accepted that nudging by the government or by your employer is ethically acceptable. After all, it’s good for you, right? But there is a minority that objects to the paternalism inherent in the concept. For instance, Michael Beran writes that, “The authors of Nudge seem not to understand that the welfare of a people depends in part on their being free to choose badly. … Probably most people … can point to experiences where their mistakes proved fruitful. … Should we gradually foreclose the freedom to be stupid, we will almost certainly end up being less intelligent.”

So is nudging libertarian paternalism, as Thaler and Sunstein would have it or false benevolence, as Beran would put it? It seems like a debate that’s worth having … but not before we answer a more basic question: does nudging work? Why bother to debate the ethics of a concept if it doesn’t actually work?

So, does nudging work? We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that making one choice easier than another can nudge people in the “right” direction. For instance, if we want to encourage organ donations, we can offer people a choice to donate or not when they get their driver’s license. The driver’s bureau can structure the default option in one of two ways: 1) You’re not a donor unless you opt in; 2) You are a donor unless you opt out. It seems likely that Option 2 would nudge people in the right direction.

As we know, however, anecdotal evidence is very weak. We tend to make up stories that fit our preconceived notions. And Frank Pasquale, writing in The Atlantic, argues that nudges are often too weak to overcome ingrained behaviors. So, is there any controlled, randomized research that would answer a simple question: does nudging work?

Somewhat surprisingly, the first such research was published just last month in Science magazine. (Click here). John Bohannon, the article’s author, reports on 15 controlled trails that involved more than 100,000 people in the United States. The trials involved signing up for various government-supplied social services. In each case, some randomly selected participants were given the “standard application.” Other participants were given a “psychological nudge in which the information was presented slightly differently … for instance, … one choice was made easier than another.”

The results? “In 11 of the trials, the nudge modestly increased a person’s response rate or influenced them to make financially smarter decision.” Bohannon includes data on three of the trials, which moved decisions in the right direction by 2.9%, 3.6%, and 11%. As Bohannon notes, these are modest changes but the costs were probably low as well (no data were given on costs). If so, the cost-benefit may be positive as well.

We now have some solid evidence that nudges actually work. We don’t know the cost-benefit ratios but let’s assume for a moment that they’re positive. If so, the question becomes, should we encourage the government to use them? On the one hand, as Bohannon notes, businesses pay billions of dollars per year for their own nudges, known as advertising. Why shouldn’t the government participate on (closer to) equal footing? On the other hand, libertarians argue that it’s really another kind of nudge – toward the nanny state. I’ll write more about the debate in the future. In the meantime, what do you think?

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