If I told you that mixing red and blue paint would create a brilliant shade of orange, you'd raise the bullsh!t flag on me right away. Everyone knows that red and blue make purple. We were taught this in grade school, and haven't ever forgotten it. You can easily verify that my assertion is just flat out wrong. But what happens if I say it over and over and over again? What happens if I start hanging pictures all over the place that show red and blue mixing to create an orange hue? What happens if this continues for years, with fewer and fewer people stopping to independently verify, instead relying on what they see around them constantly?
This scenario plays out daily in both people and organizations with the best of intentions, but flawed execution. It shows up in boardrooms and break rooms across the world. The consequences of this type of environment being allowed to exist in business can be disastrous to culture, customer relationships and shareholder return. Clearly, being able to identify whether a company or an individual is bullsh!t or the real deal is a critical skill - one that when used properly, has the power to change your life.
Great news - There is a simple test you can use to answer the bullsh!t vs. real deal question. Two of the greatest pieces of advice I've ever received in my life form the basis for this test.
The first piece of advice:
When someone shows you who they are, believe them.
People will always show you who they truly are. No matter the words that are spoken, paying attention to the behaviors and actions they exhibit will provide you authentic truth. This same concept also applies organizations, both large and small. No matter how brilliant the vision, mission or corporate values of an organization might be, the way a company treats its employees and its customers will always provide a clearer truth than words alone. Believe their actions. Always.
The second piece of advice:
Trust but verify.
Be it words, or better yet, actions that you trust when forming your evaluation of a person or organization's bullsh!t level, be sure to take the next step. Verify. Verify, through evidence testing. This sounds rudimentary, and it is. But the most basic of fundamentals are often the most sound, and simple to execute. What you see on the surface only represents a small part of the picture. Dig deeper. Ask critical questions. Seek critical evidence. Verify authenticity. Eliminate the bullsh!t.
Like the mixing of paint colors, to form a new color, somewhere in the combining of a person's (or organization's) words and actions is the evidence of their values. Imagine the blue color represents words (organizational values, mission, credo, etc.), and the red color represents actions and behaviors. Many things that are said will not align with behaviors, and several behaviors will not always sync with what is spoken or written. That space where the colors overlap - the rich purple - then represents the alignment of words and actions. A true representation of values. Values are evident at the intersection of words and actions.
In the most ideal situation, the purple is rich and voluminous, almost completely blending away the blue and red that formed it. A near complete overlap of words and actions is representative of a bullsh!t free test result. Similar to the picture above, a minimal overlap, producing just a small, dull purple, leaving many words and many behaviors unaligned, paints a clear picture - the bullsh!t is thick.
Values are evident at the intersection of words and actions.
I recently performed this test for an organization that was shedding is most talented, ethical, high-performing employees, while bleeding customers and losing market share in longstanding stronghold markets. When I listened to the leadership talk, they said all of the right things. They spread the corporate gospel (culture, diversity, customers, performance, integrity, etc) with great fanfare. They expressed their belief over and over that they were the best, they were doing it the right way, and they were winning. The problem is the words were hollow, bouncing off customers who had lost faith and employees who felt unheard, unvalued and unimportant. Customers and employees (the good ones) felt like they belonged somewhere else, so they began to leave.
In running the bullsh!t test on the organization, several things became immediately evident.
Trumpeting culture turned in to playing favorites. This showed up in performance evaluations, daily management, accountability actions and promotions.
The diversity initiatives, while well intentioned, grew over the years to exclude large groups of employees rather than become an inclusive and collaborative experience. This wore on productivity, engagement and left some of the brightest and strongest feeling like they couldn't carry the flag for the organization when things got tough.
Customers, becoming frustrated at paying premium prices but receiving only average service, and being sold items they never wanted, began to explore other options. What many began to find was the premium price was not worth the subpar experience and average service performance. As they shared their new experiences with colleagues, family and friends, more and more customers began to abandon the company.
Policies, sales targets and performance incentives were instituted that required the very best, most talented employees to be able to deliver in an ethical way. Unfortunately, the company had already lost the best, so it went to war with the loyal. This created an environment where integrity all but disappeared, but performance improved - in a few categories in particular. The problem - very few in the leadership team asked why. They instead rewarded those who had top performance with awards and promotions, further promulgating a dangerous and defective culture that did not align with their stated values.
Politics became the driving force at the Director level and above. Understanding that many companies are not immune to this phenomenon, this company had seemingly completely abandoned the notion of brightest and best, in favor of fiercely loyal.
With such a wonderful and amazing vision, mission and corporate culture statement, the purple should have been magnificent, but the colors were barely blended. Their actions and their words were not in sync. This despite the best efforts from senior leaders to implement programs and systems to "blend the colors" flawlessly. What I found was this problem truly grew at the Director and VP level. Collectively, they weren't being honest with senior leaders, because politics were rewarded and truth (if not pleasant), was viewed as disloyal. This spread downward to Associate Director and Manager levels as well. It became common place to "put on the dog and pony show" when senior executives visited, so they would move on without incident. Talk about toxic!
If you're reading this, and you are a people leader in an organization, I would encourage you to run this test on each of your key priorities. If you're reading this and you are a senior leader, know that somewhere in your organization exists and opportunity to blend the colors better and cut out the bullsh!t. If you're reading this and you're like me, you've already thought to do this on yourself. What a great tool to test for your own bullsh!t.
Devin Halliday is the Chief Belonging Architect and Founder at Rudiment Solutions, where he helps people achieve more in the world by building strong culture, performance and a sense of belonging.