I’ve just finished reading Andre Spicer’s newest book, Business Bullshit. It’s all about…well…it’s all about the use of bullshit in business. Ha, I thought, this’ll be good! I hate those people who use bullshit at work. I am so superior to them. Bullshitters are the shittiest of the shit, I thought. You probably know where this is going, don’t you?
I’ve recently started a new job and was recently about to give my inaugural speech. Part of the speech was a recapitulation of the team’s vision, mission and values. On the day of the presentation, I received an email from a friend. It was a link to this article by Andre Spicer. If you take the time out to nip over there and read the article, I am sure that you will begin to appreciate the quandary that I found myself in.
It prompted a lot of introspection in the walk from the train station to the workplace. Was all this talk of values, visions and missions bullshit? I had to settle this once and for all…but, I also had to leave the presentation as it was because I had very little time to do anything else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I settled on the view that coming up with missions, values and visions was not bullshit as long as one had a purpose for doing so. And the conclusion I drew was that there was a reason for doing so. We are all human and we tend to fall victim to the same cognitive biases (oh how I wish I had a benefactor who would buy this poster for me). And so, when a standard is set, we tend to drift away from it over time and there is a need for re-standardisation which emerges every once in a while. My presentation would serve as a re-standardisation exercise and would therefore not be bullshit.
You see, the biggest mistake I made was going off to read Andre Spicer’s book length polemic. If I’d settled just for the newspaper article, I would have been fine. But the book rummaged around in my mind and managed to find the roots of insecurity buried amidst all the cognitive biases in my head. And boy, did it tug on that root!
A fuller review of Business Bullshit will be the next blog post, but for now let’s just say that it made for uncomfortable reading. I was conscious of how defensive I felt as I turned the pages; conscious of how I had internalised the world of bullshit; conscious of how this made me a Bad Person. I was one of the shittiest of the shit. The angels in life were the recalcitrant, argumentative slackers I had always thought were…well…recalcitrant, argumentative slackers. I was the monster. The slackers got to do cool things like call bullshit on my ass. I was the square who worshipped bullshit and believed in it.
[sound effect: a needle scrapes across a record] Wait! Fuck that shit!
Yes folks, even squares like me can use the vernacular.
Swearing is cool. Swearing when you are a published academic is cooler. The coolest is using swearing in the title of your book. We all wanna be like the cool kids, don’t we? Perhaps labelling other people’s language as “bullshit” is bullshit. Words, after all, mean nothing in and of themselves. They are given meaning by the speakers and listeners. If the latter are being all sardonic and hipster, then the game is rigged. As I’ve got older, I’ve begun to think that we all need to make a real effort to assume good faith in other people. Even shitholes like Trump. And when, as with Trump, it becomes clear that they wouldn’t recognise good faith if it came up and introduced itself, we should resist the temptation to feel all judgmental and superior. Instead, we should think along the lines of there, but for the grace of god…
So, long story short, I take issue with Mr Spicer. But his goddamn book gave me lots of pause for thought and I am not dismissing his thesis out of hand.
Back to missions, visions and values.
To save my employer’s blushes (and my new job), I am not going to share our exact MVVs, but I will give you a taste. The vision is the first thing: it describes a time in the future when the world will be different. It describes a part of that difference; to whit, the part that our business is responsible for. Essentially it says, We will be ace and our students will think we’re ace. We will be contributing to their lives and enabling them to achieve their goals. The theory goes that by stating specifically what we’re all after, nobody can ever say that they didn’t know. When people do things like pop on a video for 90 minutes, we can use the vision to ask how this inches us forward to achieving the golden apple.
The mission is something I am less than entirely clear about. My understanding is that the mission says what we’re all about right here, right now. Our particular mission is all about abstract nouns. This, I am prepared to concede, has a whiff of digested grass that has passed through four stomachs about it. Because our mission, should be, sez I, To improve students ability to use English and to ensure that -on balance- this is a positive experience for them. But abstract nouns do sound nice.
The values are all things like love, freedom, equality, beauty. In case you think that I must work for L’Oreal (because I’m worth it!), these are nothing like our real values. The idea of stating the values is that people can align (BULLSHIT ALERT!) their practice with these values. So, you cannot go around punching some prisoners in the face to make them ugly as this would violate pretty much all of the fictional values used as an illustration. The hidden agenda, as far as I can see, is the message: …and if you don’t like these values, you shouldn’t be working here, which is a perfectly valid message to give in a society where people are free to pick and choose where they work and are not subject to paying mortgages and bills and shit.
The problem with values (both fictional and real) is who in their right mind is going to stand up and say that they do not value love, freedom, equality, beauty? Even Trump says crap like, “no matter the color of our skin, or the place of our birth we are all created equal by God. By their deeds shall ye know them, as Einstein said. So you end up with a pretty vapid bunch of words. And the thing is that we really do think that we love love, freedom, equality and beauty even as we turn a blind eye to homelessness, war, racism, division…and this (especially) includes all those nice liberal types who love all of society’s victims apart from the white lumpen that they dismiss as racist thugs. I’ve said it before and I’ll have it carved on my gravestone (once they’ve learned how to do BOLD in the engraving workshop): We are all assholes.
- I heart love, but I detest people like Trump.
- I heart freedom, but I think that anyone who videos themselves chopping off another person’s head should be locked up for all eternity.
- I heart equality, but I know that I am better than some.
- I heart beauty, but think people should heart the ugliness that is me.
I know I have wittered on for too long and I still have soooooo much more to say. But I’m going to wrap it up now. My main point was that there’s a lot of bullshit around these days and a lot of it, I have fallen for, hook, line and sinker. I actually feel that words like alignment, going forward, and team are not that bullshitty. I can see a value to having a clear and public statement of values, missions and visions. But Senor Spicer has made me look at all of these things with a more measured eye. He has also made me re-visit the assertion that an educational manager’s job is to allow teachers to teach and I now have a different understanding of it than before when I dismissed it as a trite piece of bullshit. I will revisit Business Bullshit soon and you will be the first to know when I do.
For now, how about these as less bullshitty missions, values and visions?
- Our vision is to build a workplace where everybody feels quite happy to be working, even though sometimes things can get a bit shitty; a place where disagreements sometimes happen, but where people get over them and restore good working relationships with their colleagues; a place where, over time, everyone contributes to making their colleagues’ working lives a little bit better and nobody ever starts whittling away at the sense that this is a good place to work.
- Our mission is to help people get better at using a foreign language in a way that we believe (and can find some evidence for this belief) is effective and based upon a real understanding of how people learn language; our mission is also to do this in a way that makes people feel happy and satisfied -overall…we recognise that there will be difficult moments.
- Our values are tolerance towards the tendency of people to behave like assholes from time to time and understanding and compassion when this happens. Up to a point…once a limit has been reached, our self compassion will kick in and at that point we will strike down with with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy our mission. And they will know our vision is supreme when we lay our vengeance upon them.