Platitudes Are Contagious: ‘Company Culture,’ Management Maxims, And Other Bullshit
The power of working for a start-up used to lie in the entrepreneurial energy and enthusiasm generated by people who, having located a novel solution to a problem or need — whether in the form of an app, a product, a website, or a service––were willing to go all-in to bring that solution to market. Facebook’s “move fast and break things” motto was the battle-cry and unconventional thinking, acting, and doing was the hallmark of the “disrupters:” high-speed, low-drag rule-breakers who meant to kick down the cobwebbed doors of stagnant industries and rebuild them in their own images of efficacy and efficiency.
Somewhere along the line, however, that mindset began to dwindle and, if articles on LinkedIn and Medium are any barometer — and I’d argue that they are — was replaced with an insipid, empty brand of magical thinking that is two parts new age and one part conventional corporate America that manifests itself in trite and ultimately meaningless platitudes and jargon. The power of imagination has become conflated with the childish notion of “if we believe in it, then it’s real” and the aggression and fearlessness of those early rule-breakers has since dissipated. There are now countless numbers of start-ups that have adopted the worst parts of conventional companies: inventing language, conflating the synthetic with the organic, and generally becoming bloated, smug, and solipsistic while wearing those tendencies as a badge of honor, as if their cheap platitudes are their gift to the entrepreneurial eco-system.
But what do these platitudes look like? While it would be easy for me to scan LinkedIn or Medium for a selection of articles that prove my point, it would also be professionally disastrous. Entrepreneurs and CEOs aren’t known for their resilience or sense of humor in the face of criticism, perhaps because they haven’t developed any platitudes that can adequately prepare them, aside from Roosevelt’s “It is not the critic who counts…” or, more likely, writing off their critics as haters, losers, pessimists, or other unmutuals.
Here’s just a quick and dirty — and by no means complete — guide to the bullshit that Platitude-lovers are slinging. Consider these red flags.
• The word “hustle” in any context, unless referring to the disco era.
• The word “mindset,” when it comes to the necessity of changing yours.
• Appeals to authority: any invocation of qualities, habits, processes, or values possessed or practiced by leaders or managers.
• Analogies drawn between business and sports or warfare by non-athletes or non-warfighters… and sometimes even then.
• Discussions of paradigms, metaphorical boxes, or other attempts to illustrate Plato’s cave as applied to business.
• Anything having to do with time, whether managing it, saving it, or stretching it: especially when it’s one simple thing you can do…
• Talk of “passion” in the workplace.
• Any top-down (and they’re all top-down) guide on how to build team cohesion or “company culture.”
• Anything that claims to be able to identify the characteristics of successful people.
• Writing that promises to redefine things which already have perfectly reasonable definitions, e.g.; “success.”
• Any article that tells you that changing your mindset/attitude/alarm/reading habits will somehow harness some type of latent superpower.
• Claims that the ‘universe’ has some vested interest in you, your company, or your business.
• Inventing new language for things that already exist: attempts to reimagine titles or spaces (including meetings).
• Anything that commands that you “dare to…”
Ever notice how everyone who challenges you to think differently sounds exactly alike? How they swap out one inane-sounding idea for another one?
That’s because platitudes are contagious. They spread easily, sharing the same power of memes, viral stories, and fake news: they’re consumable, easily adaptable, require no analysis or critical thinking, and confirm one’s biases. Self-contained, they eschew context. This is the same reason why quotes from famous leaders do so well as preludes to tedious articles. Quotes are not bad per se. They often express ideas elegantly, flavor a text with wit, or signal a theme that is to be developed. Unfortunately, with bad writing — texts that become strings of platitudes masquerading as intelligence —writers utilize quotes as a kind of literary forced teaming to prime the reader into thinking that what they’re consuming is the intellectual peer of, say, Churchill, Einstein, or Sun Tzu. Quotes also provide an instant relatability: they’re signifiers of shared cultural iconography — Oprah, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi — that rely on shallow understandings to create a false sense of intellectual depth and social connectivity. As Winston Churchill wryly pointed out — and yes, I’m aware of the irony here, but bear with me — “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.”
Why is it good? Because quotes give the illusion of sophistication. One needn’t be Churchill or Wilde — or even have read them — to appear erudite behind a byline: one need only be able to copy, select, and paste.
This is worth a slight detour. Repurposed quotes, cut from their original contexts, become anchors for whatever bullshit people want to attach to them. For example, one popular quote by T.S. Eliot is “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Prima facie, it looks like a call to action, to daring, to “disrupting.” But what most people fail to realize is that it was written in 1931 as part of the introduction to an edition of Transit of Venus, a book of poems written by Harry Crosby, a Boston brahmin and nephew of J.P. Morgan whose excesses and predilection for self-destruction led him to kill himself in a suicide pact at the age of 31 with his 21-year-old married lover in 1929. The quote refers both to Crosby’s poetry and his suicidality. It does not refer to your start-up’s value system. It is not about what you can do to make your organization a top performer. It is not about you. Because the context is either forgotten or ignored, however, it becomes another piece of malignant business drivel with all the depth and wisdom of a bumper sticker or a novelty coffee mug.
Platitudes, whether in the form of recycled quotes, articles, linguistic inventions, asinine acronyms, or simple slogans, are a quick ticket to comfort and stagnancy, all the while masquerading as being edgy, novel, or disruptive when they are anything but. What’s more is that these platitudes, socialized as ‘content’ in the form of articles shared on sites like this one — which, for better or worse, often serves as a mutual admiration society for writers of varying, often dubious, talent levels — become reinforced as part of the business ecosystem. They multiply. They infect. The creators of these platitudes get positive reinforcement by recommendations, likes, shares, retweets, and followers. In turn, they return the favor… and the cycle continues. It’s as if the Dunning-Kruger effect — the tendency of the unskilled or unintelligent to think of themselves as highly skilled or exceptionally intelligent — has been weaponized with the power of social affirmation.
If it sounds like I am arguing against democratized content, it’s because I am. I do not for a moment believe that all ideas are created equal or that everyone has a talent for writing or leadership, just as I do not believe that everyone has a talent for singing, dancing, or silversmithing. The proliferation of platitudes are, to some degree, a symptom of a serious problem: they conflate the ability to generate and publish ideas with actually having good — or at least original — ideas. More over, they confuse cheerleading with leadership, tolerance with teamwork, and brand cults with culture. Writing these things down and pouring them into the world suggests an authority, part of the issue discussed in Tom Nichols’ excellent book The Death Of Expertise. These ideas, then, serve no real purpose except to sound authoritative, influential, and intelligent. By confidently assuming the role of guru/mentor/expert, the Platitude-lover teaches one lesson and one lesson only: strike a pose and the most susceptible people will believe it. La Rochefoucauld expressed a similar sentiment when he said,
“In all aspects of life, we take on a part and an appearance to seem to be what we wish to be — and thus the world is merely composed of actors.”
The issue here is that some people are really, really bad actors in roles that they’re simply not cut out for. They continue their act as they traipse about on stage, applauded by audiences who either don’t know any better or by actors who are just as bad as they are. None of this would be a problem were it not for the fact that they negatively influence the ratio of noise to signal in the world: they dilute the world of ideas.
The “move fast and break things” ethos has been replaced by contagious mediocre feel-good bullshit. The irony, of course, is that the people spouting these inane platitudes don’t see that they’re not disrupting anything. They don’t realize that they’re simply regurgitating cheap iterations of The Secret, listicles, and the tens of thousands of management manuals and self-help books that have littered bookstore best-seller and remainder aisles for as long as anyone can remember.
So what can you do to combat platitudes? Not much. If you’re a platitude-lover, you’re probably seething right now. Good. Let this be the kick in the ass you need. For everyone else… well, bad news. There’s no evidence that simplistic thinking — and writing — is going anywhere. Don’t let it pollute your psychological space or your social media: mute and unfollow all lovers of platitudes. If you encounter it in your workplace, ignore it if you can, tolerate it if you must. Remember, bullshit artists are exceptionally sensitive about their “work” and to call out challenge a platitude-lover’s ego might put end up branding you as a non-believer. In a world where more baffle with bullshit than dazzle with dexterity, the truth is a luxury that can only be enjoyed alone.