The Subtle Art of Calling B.S. at Work
“One of the common habits of successful working teams is that their members learn to call B.S. on one another without disrespecting or perceiving disrespect.” - Carl Bergstrom, Professor of Biology, University of Washington
Eight years into my career, I had one of the most difficult yet powerful conversations of my work life...30,000 feet above ground on a flight home to Georgia. I’d spent the last six months flying to and from a big manufacturing plant in Kentucky while we were working through a labor issue there. Now, I found myself on the company jet (relatively early in my career, I might add) alone with the company CEO and terrified out of my mind.
My palms were sweating and I remember thinking to myself, “Please don’t ask me any questions. Please, dear God, don’t ask me any questions.” Of course, he turned to me and asked, “So, Jason, I’m curious...why do my employees want a union to represent them?”
I froze. Wait...what did he just ask me? How had no one above my pay grade given him an honest answer to this question? We’d been surrounded by high-end labor lawyers and HR consultants for months. Did they not say anything? If they had, did they shoot it to him straight or just feed him legal B.S.?
I quickly weighed my options: (a) tell this guy what he wanted to hear, get back to editing the newsletter, and hope he’d ignore me for the rest of the flight, or (b) give him the God’s honest truth.
It took all the courage I could muster to opt for the latter.
I told him that his employees felt like the company was turning into something they didn’t recognize, something different from what they joined and from what their fathers had joined. They used to love working there.Now, they were desperately trying to hold onto the past and, in their minds, save the company from itself.
There. I said it. Shit. I said that!?!
Talk about turbulence on a flight. I looked around for a parachute. I wondered how to apply for unemployment benefits. Is Target hiring? Why didn’t I just go to law school?
The CEO sat in stunned silence.
His dad had started the company back in the 50’s. He and his brothers and sisters had spent their whole lives in and around this company. What I said surely hit close to home for him. It wasn’t just about work. It was personal...and highly emotional.
But he was a good man, just like his father. And they both truly wanted to do the right thing. That conversation ultimately left a mark, shaping the tactics of that labor effort and, ultimately, the future of the company.
I still think back to that moment and shudder.
But now, many years later and deeper into my career, I shudder not because of what I said,but because of what I almost didn’t say.
Saying what ought to be said — even when it’s hard — is a noble pursuit.
As a communications professional, you have to straddle the line between the interests of your employees and those of your executive team. You are the direct link and, ultimately, it’s your job to represent the interests of both as you serve as an unbiased mediator between the two. Sometimes, that balancing act reaches a tipping point, and you will be faced with a difficult decision: speak up or hold your peace.
Here are a few ways that you as a communicator can find the courage within yourself to say what needs to be said and even call B.S. when you see it.
Seek to Continuously Polish Your B.S. Meter
Before you call B.S., you need to have a clear understanding of what it looks like. You also need to become a master at spotting B.S. before it even occurs. Basically, your job is to become the official B.S. detector within your organization.
Here’s how to spot it before your organization steps in it.
B.S. From Your Employees
We tried that before and it didn’t work. Things change, people change, and circumstances change. This is a recurring excuse for resisting change and innovation and one that employees lean on heavily when they’re scared or not feeling up to the task.
But this is how we’ve always done it. See above.
B.S. From Your C-Suite
I read an article about how XYZ company did XYZ. It worked for them. We should do it too. Just because something worked at another company doesn’t mean it will work at yours. It’s your job as a communicator to keep a pulse on all of the moving parts of the company and speak up when you foresee any misalignment. Yes, be open to big, grand ideas and how to execute them. But also be mindful that apples aren’t oranges and question broad comparisons.
We’ll just get Ned to go tell the employees. Many internal communications initiatives, especially those that involve culture change, require executive buy-in and support. But when the initiative and the executive aren’t aligned, it shows. So when the plant manager half-heartedly reads a script at the town hall about how “excited” he is about this new thingamabob you’re doing, it shows. His heart isn’t in it. The CEO sent him in to do something that even he didn’t believe in. It’ll show. And your employees will react accordingly.
Do Some Detective Work For Yourself
The best internal comms folks establish feedback mechanisms with employees to help detect potential B.S. in real-time. How exactly? (Hint: the answer is NOT to conduct a focus group). They get to know them. They call them. They have lunch with them. They eat crackers and a have Coke with them at break. They truly build a friendship as a way to help make things better.
They don’t use them for intel, they work with them to make sure that that intel is included in the discussion and the decisions. Imagine the type of insight you could bring to the table with that kind of first-hand experience and perspective. More importantly, imagine the difference you could make in the lives of your employees by representing their interests as much as you do the company’s.
Say What Ought To Be Said
Now comes the hard part—bringing this less-than-ideal information back to your c-suite.
Speak to Them As An Equal: Don’t get yourself too worked up about the fact that this person is higher up in the organization than you. He or she is human with the same basic needs as you. You are there to counsel and be a trusted advisor. People don’t take counsel and trusted advice from others they don’t respect. You know 100 times more about internal communication and employee engagement than anyone else in your company. Be confident in your role and your standing with your leaders.
Gain Some Perspective: Remember, this is just two people having a conversation. Nothing more, nothing less. Take a deep breath and remember that it will all be over soon enough. And you’ll both be better and smarter as a result.
Ask the Right Questions: Calling B.S. on your boss can feel like a daunting task. Asking questions and forming conclusions together can help. One study found that supportive questions are far more likely to be well received than provocative ones. The goal is to challenge, not be challenging. Disruptive, without being disrupting.
Be Respectful: There’s no need to be aggressive or act super intense like they do in the movies. You’re questioning the claim or the situation, not the person you’re speaking to.
Shoot Straight: You won’t get fired over being honest and telling the truth. And on the off chance you do, good. You can’t be a counselor to those who don’t want to be counseled. But saying what needs to be said is your job. They’ve asked you for your perspective and insight. Deliver the value you’ve promised.
Suit Up: Sometimes, you need to bring in some backup. You’ll still have to step up and call B.S. But now, you’re wearing some protective armor. A good communications partner will make sure that you get credit for everything that goes right and that they take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. You don’t want to throw them under the bus, obviously. But if what ought to be said is potentially so controversial that they’re going to throw someone under the bus as a result, you can decide if you want it to be you or if you want it to be at least one other person before they finally get to you. Good partners know this. And they’ll gladly let themselves be thrown under the bus in the name of doing what’s right.
Listen. I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes, I’m not even sure what all of the questions are. I’m just a guy from a small town in Georgia who has a few things to say about what I’ve seen and learned.
But the way I see it, you have two options as an internal comms pro when it comes to saying what ought to be said: build the courage to call B.S. when you see it, or get really comfortable contributing to a culture of B.S. that you and everyone else will soon come to loathe.
When we finally landed, the CEO and I got off the plane and slowly made our way to our cars. As we parted, he shook my hand and said, “I’m glad you said what you did.”
So am I.