Earning

How to detect and manage BS at work, according to a professor of psychology

"BS clouds a situation so you can't see it for what it really is."

Share
Twenty/20

As more offices shift back to in-person work, face-to-face conversations with colleagues outside our bubble are likely to be more challenging, experts say.

One thing Americans will have to fine-tune again is their ability to know when other people are trying to deceive, bluff, or misdirect them in specific ways, says John V. Petrocelli, professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and author of "The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit." More than a year of isolation, in combination with most communication being online, has dulled our ability to tell when someone is BS-ing us.

This applies to inconsequential interactions, like office small talk, but also to more serious conversations between bosses and employees, and it can be related to insecurity, Petrocelli says: "Feeling obligated to have an opinion or have knowledge about something which exceeds the amount of expertise one has in that domain," he says.

"BS is mainly promoting one's status and preventing negative things," he adds. "Bosses and employees are going to have a lot of BS going both ways because there are motives for both individuals."

Bosses and employees are going to have a lot of BS going both ways because there are motives for both individuals.
John V. Petrocelli
professor of psychology at Wake Forest University

This kind of bluffing or misdirecting, he says, is different from just being dishonest. "Lying involves discussing or communicating something that one does not actually believe," he says. "The liar actually knows the truth and cares about the truth. They lie to detract the receiver of information from truth."

If someone is BS-ing you, though, they don't care about the truth and might not even know it, he says: "BS-ing is simply communicating without any regard for truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge." As an act, it's generally considered less bad than lying. "If someone lies to you, it's likely that you're going to respond with anger or disdain," he says. "Usually when we've determined someone is BS-ing, we give them a social pass." All the same, it can have an impact on your career.

Here is how to detect BS when you're a manager and when you're an employee.

As a manager, 'ask probing questions'

If you're a manager, the best way to tell if your employee is BS-ing you is "asking probing questions," says Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume.

"Many [employees] can put on a good show and speak in broad terms about a project or task they're assigned. However, few can keep the story going if they're asked to offer details about the process or their findings," she says. For example, instead of asking broadly about how a project is going, ask what steps have been taken toward its completion.

Petrocelli agrees that "data collection" is key. "The No. 1 reason people fail at detecting BS is they feel they are not susceptible to it," he says. "They don't ask enough questions. They don't ask clarification questions."

The No. 1 reason people fail at detecting BS is they feel they are not susceptible to it.
John V. Petrocelli
professor of psychology at Wake Forest University

Along with asking detailed follow-up questions, it's important to keep lines of communication open so you know if your employee is juggling more than usual that week. Because an employee doesn't want to admit they can't meet a deadline, a question like "Will this be done by Friday?" will almost always net the answer "Yes." To get the truth, you can ask "How is it that you're going to finish this task by Friday, given your other responsibilities and deadlines?"

The more questions you ask and the more knowledge you have about the workloads of those you are managing, the more easily you'll be able to see through BS and manage your own expectations.

As an employee, look for 'concrete steps'

For employees, data collection is also key, Petrocelli says. If you want a promotion, for example, ask questions and get specifics about how you can accomplish that. "I would be asking, 'What are the concrete steps of the process?'" he says. "Be willing to pick their brain about how that is going to occur."

Remember, all answers should be followed by actions, says Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid.

"It's easy to tell someone that they have upward mobility at the company, but if they don't promote you or give you more opportunities and won't commit to when they can do that — or the goalposts of the timeline keep moving — that's definitely a red flag," she says. "Also, if other people are moving forward and you aren't and they can't tell you why."

It's easy to tell someone that they have upward mobility at the company but if they don't promote you or give you more opportunities ... that's definitely a red flag.
Claire Wasserman
founder of Ladies Get Paid

There are strategies to deal with this kind of obfuscation when it comes from your boss, says Meggie Palmer, founder of PepTalkHer.com. Her top recommendations:

  • Keep a paper trail. "Talk is cheap; keeping a record is hard to refute," she says. "I always suggest following up from big meetings with an email noting the key points, especially if you think they might be full of BS."
  • Cross check. Compare what your boss is saying against other colleagues' experiences. "It's crucial to have relationships across your company and a wide range of allies," she says. "This helps you to sense-check BS with others in the organization."

Regardless of whether you're the manager or the employee, this kind of communication can have a negative impact on the workplace by setting unrealistic expectations for everyone, especially if it becomes the norm. "BS clouds a situation so you can't see it for what it really is," Petrocelli says. "The more we steer toward evidence-based reasoning the much better off we will be, and BS will go by the wayside."

More from Grow: