We all need to spot & weed out bullshitters

Most of us learn as we grow, gradually or in lurches, that not everyone thinks the way we do or has the same values that we do. One of the sharpest lessons I learned was early in my career, and it nearly ended my career before it started. It is one that we all need to learn, and it is one I am reminded of every time I watch Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).

A Scottish Highland bull — BrianForbes
A Scottish Highland bull — BrianForbes

Appearance is everything to them

After a spell as a programmer, I had been hired as a trainee systems analyst. At the end of the training course we were formed into teams and each team had to present its solution to a set problem to a panel of managers, who could then pick which of us they wanted to add to their teams. I thought that we had come up with a reasonable solution and that the first of us had done a good job of presenting their parts of it, so I had high hopes of our last speaker completing the good impression as he had come across as by far the best speaker among us.

Instead, he apparently had totally forgotten our solution and made up a load of rubbish. I was appalled, he made us look like total idiots. But he was so full of himself afterwards for how well he had BS’d his way through it. He seemed oblivious to the real-life consequences, he cared only about appearances. Fortunately, one of the managers had seen my horrified expression and took me on.

I am reminded of this every time I see Boris Johnson full of himself for the way he manages not to answer any serious questions in PMQs, let alone truthfully, and I see Keir Starmer’s stony face as his facts make zero impression on our reality-free zone prime minister.

They career on, leaving carnage in their wake, apparently oblivious, certainly not caring. Those who promoted them, and those who see their careers as riding on their shirt tails, cover for them. There are a lot of the latter in the Tory Party. Indeed, for some, that is all politics is about. The rest below them scramble to make things work, either to keep their jobs since they are the ones who will be blamed for failure, or because they care, for example the doctors and nurses and other workers in the NHS.

Some years ago, as a freelance computer consultant, I was brought in to help test the programs amalgamating two large computer systems after a merger. My temporary boss produced a plan which made it look like everything would be finished on time, and promptly left on holiday, leaving me to implement it and see to the testing. I looked at the plan and concluded that everything would have to work perfectly for us to be finished in just time, which it never does. So I asked the guy in charge of computers if he would be able to allocate me additional resources if I needed it for parallel testing. He passed his concerns up his chain. Meanwhile, it turned out that the data from one of the systems was not as it had been described, so nothing worked and we were getting nowhere.

On the Friday, at going home time, we were told not to go home, we were to work through the night. That was the beginning of a spell of 24/7 working — I worked nights and didn’t get home for a month. Since I was the only one who knew the interface in my boss’s absence, I had to be available for questions. So, I parked my little motor caravan in the staff car park and slept there during the day, so people could come and talk to me whenever they saw I was awake. I used the managers’ bathroom for showers and went to a manager’s house to do my ironing. It was great for my bank balance, but I could not claim all the hours I worked — well over 100 a week — as my boss would not have signed for them. Even the managers from other departments were drafted in to act as our assistants. They brought us steak!

So, one guy producing something which looked good but was not practical cost us and the company a lot of grief, and the company a lot of money and its reputation. And yet these are the ones, if they have perfected the gift of the gab, who most often get promoted. The Peter principle gone wild at great cost to everyone, including their employers.

Now the Tories are claiming the COVID pandemic is basically over, despite the facts and the risks. No more restrictions? They must no longer be necessary, they want you to think. No more tests? Well, Trump said more Covid-19 testing created more cases, so if there are no tests, there are no cases, right? No more statistics? What you don’t know won’t hurt you, right?

They mistake claiming to have got things done for doing what needs to be done. They did not care to think what the consequences of Brexit would be, just as they do not care what the consequences and risks of getting COVID ‘done’ will be.

Unfair credit and blame

Another habit they have is to claim credit for other peoples’ work. All they care about is that it makes them look good and helps them on their way towards promotion. They don’t care about the demotivating effect it has on the people who actually do the work, or the high turnover of staff as a result. The modern corporate habit of hiring inexperienced people because they are cheaper and letting people go who are more expensive because of their experience and skills does not help. It leads to a lowering of standards all round. This is not the way to make a country great.

The Tory party tried to put the blame for their disastrous Test and Trace program on the NHS by labelling it as NHS (somehow they knew that the NHS had a better reputation than they did, even if they do not acknowledge it)

Then the Conservatives added their logo to the booster effort, which they sprang on the NHS who rose heroically to the occasion — for the benefit of the people, not the politicians.

What can we do?

As employees, there is usually not a lot we can do about the situation, but that does not mean that we are helpless.

Parents — does your child always blame others for any trouble? Don’t automatically believe them, but check the facts whenever you can. And if they turn out to have been lying, make sure it is not worth their while to repeat the offence. If they are continually rewarded for lying they will grow up to be a monster.

Similarly, teachers should not let children get away with it. And while schools should encourage self confidence in their pupils, schools and universities aimed primarily at the children of the rich and entitled should not instill them with a sense of undeserved superiority, entitlement or hubris. If they don’t grow up as monsters, they will spend their lives thinking they have underachieved because unrealistic expectations have been foisted on them

Voters should be a lot more careful who they vote for. If there is one party which embraces your values, join it and have a say in who they pick as their candidates. It is not enough to simply vote for the candidate running for your preferred party. If the candidate lies through their teeth like Boris Johnson, or obviously cares more about appearances over substance like photo-op queen Liz Truss, then reject them, and let your party (if you have one) know that such candidates are not acceptable. We get the government we deserve.

While I would absolutely not put any entry requirements on candidates for office — people can represent us as well with passion as with qualifications — I do think that parties should try to include enough candidates who have relevant useful skills and experience for every cabinet office — not just the gift of the gab — or who can be trained up by prolonged periods in lower office or shadow office. Never again do I want to see the country a laughingstock and so disregarded as it is now. This practice of shuffling people from office to office — shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic — has to stop. These people may have the hubris to think they are able to head any department, just as CEOs think they can switch from industry to industry, but they are nearly always wrong, with disastrous consequences for whoever works for them and for their customers or for the country. The people skills may be the same (particularly if you are a “Chainsaw Al”) but relevant knowledge and good teamwork are often essential.

So, in the long term we can reform both politics and work by raising our kids well, by working within the parties to weed out bad apples, and/or by working outside the parties to inform the public what kind of candidates and politicians we have.

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Sue Nethercott

Sue Nethercott

Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.