Why Do Otherwise Great Leaders Sometimes Spew So Much BS? Social Research Reveals the Underlying Causes of Strong Opinions, Weakly Justified

Illustration: Getty/Inc.

And how you can resist the natural temptation to always have the answers.

Years ago, I worked at a plant where a sinkhole had formed in the parking lot, so we hired a geologist to evaluate the extent of the problem and determine potential fixes. We knew the problem was big — and would definitely exceed our contingency spending budget — so our CEO flew in to attend when the geologist presented his findings.

Well, not all of his findings; a few minutes in, our CEO jumped up, scrawled a few lines on the facility map, nodded decisively, and said, “There. Clearly that’s all we’ll need to fix.”

Taken aback, the geologist started to respond. Nope: Our CEO said, “Thanks for your time,” and nodded dismissively toward the door.

Keep in mind he was a smart guy; he knew a lot, about a lot of things. Yet he knew nothing about geology, or sinkholes, or the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks by suffosion processes.

What he did know was that he was in charge — which, to him, meant he had to have an opinion: a decisive opinion, even though that opinion was bull(crap), an unsupported explanation or rationale. (The dictionary definition of BS? Communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence, and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge.)

That’s just one of the reasons people resort to BS, psychologist John Petrocelli cites in a paper published in Journal of Experimental Psychology titled “The Antecedents of Bullshitting.”

People tend to BS:

  • When they feel obligated to communicate about things they know little about
  • When they expect to receive a “social pass” of acceptability
  • When social cues signify difficulty in receiving that social pass of acceptability

Take the first one. In business, people who are smart and decisive — who take bold stands, even when others doubt them — tend to be perceived as better leaders.

But that’s not always the case. Smart people also tend to be better at constructing convincing arguments that support things they believe. Or, sometimes, that they simply want to be true. (As with the sinkholes.)

Smart people also tend to be more confident in their judgments, and quicker to assume they’re right, because they know they’re smart. (Even though Jeff Bezos says a sign of high intelligence is the willingness to change your mind.)

Add it all up, and since leaders are supposed to be smart, and have the answers, there can be a self-imposed obligation to communicate about things they know little about.

As for the “social pass” aspect of BS? According to the study, people who feel more pressure to provide their thoughts are more likely to BS, which also makes sense: Ask for my opinion during a meeting, I will find it really hard to say, “I don’t know,” even if I really don’t know.

But what if I feel pressure to have an opinion in a setting where people are likely to call BS on my BS? Then I’m far less likely to whip out that BS.

That’s the “difficulty in accepting a pass” aspect. I’m unlikely to just say, “This project will generate an amazing return,” if I know you have data that shows it won’t. I’m unlikely to just say, “John is the perfect candidate,” if I know a team of people interviewed him, conducted a skills test, checked his references, etc., and likely came to a different conclusion.

Even so, the study shows that the more pressure you feel to have an opinion, the more likely you are to BS one — even if the odds people will call BS on your BS are high. Like our CEO saying, in effect, he knew more than a geologist about sinkholes. He got away with his BS because of his position’s authority, not his intellectual authority.

Which brings us back to leaders.

As a leader, you’re expected to have an opinion. In fact, the newer you are to a leadership role, the less secure you may feel and the more pressure you may feel — even if that pressure is only self-imposed — to always have an opinion.

Even so, outstanding leaders don’t feel pressure to know everything. (In fact, they purposely hire people who know more than they do about certain things.) As a result, saying “I don’t know” comes naturally. Asking for input or guidance comes naturally. Asking for help comes naturally.

Showing vulnerability comes naturally, which makes it easier for other people to say, “I don’t know.” The result is what Daniel Coyle, in his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, calls a vulnerability loop. Person No. 1 is vulnerable, and admits a mistake or a shortcoming. That allows Person No. 2 to do the same, creating high-candor exchanges that drive performance and build trust.

Every leader casts a shadow. Instead of a BS shadow, when appropriate cast the “I don’t know” shadow.

Because that will help ensure that you, and the people you work with, will try to find the best answer.

And not just the BS answer.