According to a study published in Psychological Reports, a workplace’s tendency for bullshit does not go unnoticed by its employees. In fact, bullshit in the workplace can even be measured with a new scale called the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale. The study’s authors say the scale could serve as a starting point for organizations hoping to identify and eradicate bullshit in the workplace.
There has been a growing interest among scholars in studying the role of bullshit in society. The term “bullshit” refers to information that is shared with little regard for the truth. One institution that tends to be ripe with this type of communication is the workplace.
Bullshit in the workplace — or organizational bullshit — has been speculated to have a negative impact on both employees and organizations. Yet, until recently, there was no existing scale for measuring bullshit at work, leaving this speculation untested. Faced with this predicament, a team of researchers designed their own.
“While the term bullshit, has moved from being seen as a swearword to a term used to describe an act of communication, it is one that remains relatively taboo in academic literature,” explained study author Caitlin Ferreira, a lecturer in marketing at the Luleå University of Technology.
“What’s interesting is that workplace bullshit (BS) is something that most people can relate to. If somebody says ‘that’s bullshit’ there is typically a shared understanding of exactly what that means, but the extent to which this phenomenon has been studied in academic research pales in comparison to other workplace phenomena.”
“It’s important to note that there are a number of potential negative effects of workplace BS, including lower job satisfaction, increased distrust in leadership and reduced performance (McCarthy et al., 2020) thereby warranting further research in this area.”
The researchers created the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale (OBPS) to measure the extent that employees perceive bullshit within their organization. Beginning with an overview of related research, Ferreira and her colleagues determined that the concept of organizational bullshit likely involves three factors. They then came up with a list of 15 items to measure these factors and tested the scale among two samples of employees from various industries.
In an initial study among 332 employees, two statistical tests called exploratory factor analysis and confirmatory factor analysis confirmed that there were three distinct factors involved in organizational bullshit. The first involved an organization’s tolerance for communication that disregards the truth. The next factor involved the boss’ use of bullshit at work. And finally, the third factor involved the use of bullshit language in the workplace, such as the overuse of acronyms or corporate jargon (e.g., “thinking outside the box”).
“Together with my co-authors, we identified three key underlying dimensions of workplace BS,” Ferreira explained. “The first, regard for truth, speaks to the extent to which the corporate culture places an importance on evidence and facts in decision-making. The second dimension, the boss, speaks to the perpetuation of workplace BS by hierarchical structures within an organization – suggesting that superiors may be key role-players in the dissemination of BS.”
“The final dimension, BS language, highlights some of the language typically used by those perpetuating workplace BS. This is typically exclusionary language, such as acronyms and jargon, that would often cause individuals to doubt their own understanding and otherwise prevent others from meaningfully contributing to a conversation or voicing their concerns.”
The researchers next checked the validity of the scale — the extent that the scale measured what it was intended to. The scale appeared valid, and two of the three factors were found to predict scores on a separate 4-point scale of perceived bullshit within an organization.
A second study among 343 employees additionally supported the subscales of the OBPS but could not confirm the three-factor model. Notably, the researchers uncovered flaws from this study’s data, which might explain why the results were inconsistent with the first study.
Overall, the authors maintain that their research offers evidence that bullshit in the workplace is recognized by employees. Workers seem attuned to the extent that their place of work either accepts or rejects bullshit practices, the extent that their bosses use bullshit, and the extent that bullshit is communicated at work through corporate jargon and acronyms.
“The scale that we’ve developed provides a tool for HR practitioners to assess the prevalence and source of workplace BS in the hopes of eliminating some of the harmful effects thereof,” Ferreira told PsyPost.
While it was not investigated in their study, Ferreira and her team speculated that these perceptions of bullshit likely create frustration among employees. A culture of bullshit at work might also lead organizations toward careless decisions that could threaten the livelihoods of their employees. The authors said they hope that future studies will attempt to further validate the OBPS, and potentially use it to examine the outcomes associated with bullshit in the workplace.
“In our article we developed a scale to measure workplace BS, however that scale still needs to be validated in many different samples and settings. We are in the process of working on further research to validate this scale, but there are still many questions left to be addressed,” Ferreira said.
“For example, we need to further look at the different impacts of positive BS and negative BS – both of which can exist in the same working environment. It would also be great to clearly delineate which dimensions of workplace BS would negatively affect other factors like job satisfaction or organizational performance the most. Further research that considers effective strategies to eliminate negative workplace BS is also a great avenue for further research.”
Beyond advancing psychologists’ understanding of bullshit, the scale has promising practical implications. The study authors propose that in the hands of human resource personnel, the scale might serve as a checklist to assess the extent that bullshit exists within an organization, as well as the extent that employees perceive it. Through identifying particular areas where bullshit is being picked up on by employees, these issues can be addressed and potentially eradicated.
“Workplace BS needs to be called out,” Ferreira concluded. “It’s very important that individuals feel empowered to ask questions in the workplace to ensure that decisions are made based on evidence and fact as opposed to a blatant disregard for information. So, the next time you find yourself thinking ‘well, that’s bullshit,’ speak up and call out decision-making that’s done without much regard for the truth.”
The study, “This Place Is Full of It: Towards an Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale”, was authored by Caitlin Ferreira, David Hannah, Ian McCarthy, Leyland Pitt, and Sarah Lord Ferguson.