Social Engineering and Employee Engagement

Social Engineering and Employee Engagement

Our next productivity explosion could come from… social engineering. While everybody is rambling on about AI, the real holy grail is and has always been human intelligence and mass manipulation thereof.

Sounds creepy, doesn’t it? But so did the steam engine in the 1800s and cybernetics in the 60s. In fact, social engineering has already taken root in the corporate landscape. People talk about employee engagement as though it were something they could control at the flip of a switch. Even on this blog, we’ve looked at cults, dopamine, and high-performing teams, all in the name of helping you, the manager, engineer your own workforce.

So, what exactly is social engineering?

In 1894, Dutch industrialist J.C. Van Marken coined the term “social engineer.” He believed that experts could organize and improve society in the same way engineers designed and developed machinery.

Van Marken fit his own definition of a social engineer. His ideas came from organizing the work and leisure of his employees. His factories boasted profit sharing, cooperative printing press, schools, libraries, athletic and social clubs, and insurance funds for accident, sickness and old age. He exhibited his achievements at the Paris Exposition of I900, alongside such technological marvels as “talking pictures,” escalators, and Campbell Soup.

This is how a contemporary described his work:

“Mr. Van Marken’s Yeast and Oil factories, with their related social institutions, at Delft, Holland, constitute one of the chief examples to be found in Europe of the attempt to harmonize the interests of employer and employees. In the organization of industry, as here carried, on the principles of profit sharing and employees’ welfare, institutions have been carried to their logical extreme. Ground has been purchased and laid out in a charming residential park, in which the employees and their families live as far as the size of the park permits. Institutions of almost every conceivable character for the benefit of the workingmen have there been created… Every need from kindergarten for the children to superannuation pensions for the old workingmen are provided for…” (a book review by W. F. Willoughby in the Journal of Political Economy, 1901)

Sounds a bit like Googleplex, doesn’t it? There’s only one problem: Van Marken left his employees no choice but to do what he thought was best for them:

“One cannot but admire the devotion and sacrifice of Mr. Van Marken which have led to the creation of all these efforts for the improvement of the condition of the working people who are his employees. At the same time one must question whether he has at all times pursued the wisest methods. Everywhere there is evidence that the working-man is held in tutelage. He is assigned to one of several classes according to his merit and can be promoted from one to the other or degraded. The system is almost identical with that employed in grading school children. Even in respect to the matter of savings banks, there are regulations determining the purposes for which withdrawals may be made. A minimum reliance seems to be placed on private effort and initiative…”

Though novel at the time, his practices became the way of the future. Today, we’re no longer surprised at being ranked and graded like school children at work. Nor do we resent having to “borrow” money from our own 401(k) savings. Van Marken went as far as mandating that his workers put money away for a rainy day. To his critics, he had this to say:

“Of late there are those who call for the abolition of this compulsory saving; such a proceeding would certainly be equivalent to the suppression of the bank and ought to be considered a most regrettable fact. The advocates of this abolition pretend that the members of the staff are men enough to watch over their personal material interests and those of their families themselves; they forget that few individuals are strong enough to deprive themselves of the satisfaction of the daily wants of the family, in order to put something on one side, in view of the extraordinary circumstances of life.” (J. C. Van Marken, Industrial Social Organization)

Social engineering is a tool for changing public attitudes and behaviors. Useful as it may be for saving us from ourselves, it can easily become a weapon of mass manipulation.

Van Marken’s timing was not accidental. Several advances in science and technology had laid the groundwork for large-scale social experiments. In 1899, Sigmund Freud introduced the notion of the subconscious in his famous work, The Interpretation of Dreams. Meanwhile, the newly invented radio and cinema provided the most efficient means yet of molding public sentiment.

The first man to put two and two together was Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations.” Bernays worked for the American government and a number of large corporations as a chief propagandist. He was responsible for such seismic shifts in public opinion as:

  • Promoting Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to American audiences in 1915 (by getting newspapers to report that ballet is “fun to watch.”)
  • Making cigarettes popular with young women in 1929 (by associating smoking with “freedom.”)
  • Convincing Americans that bacon and eggs were the “true all-American breakfast” in the 1920s (by getting doctors to endorse it.)
  • Convincing consumers that only disposable cups were sanitary in the 1930s (by linking the imagery of an overflowing cup with subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease.)
  • Water fluoridation in the 1930s and 40s (by working with the U.S. Institutes of Health and American Dental Association on behalf of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa))

Life magazine named Bernays one of 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. But there’s a reason you may have never heard of him. This is how Bernays himself put it in a book titled “Propaganda,” published in 1929:

“…We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Incidentally, Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He took to heart his uncle’s discovery of the irrational forces behind human behavior and used it to both devise and justify his tactics. If you’re wondering whether social engineering really works, the lasting success of Bernays’ campaigns should dispel your doubts.

It works great. But is it okay to use?

As with all shades of gray, let your conscience be your guide. Social engineering is here to stay. If you’re looking for permission to give it a shot, another famous Viennese, Karl Popper, splits the hair this way:

“The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945)

According to Popper, “piecemeal” or democratic social engineering is okay, but Utopian social engineering is wrong. In other words, if you’re Edward Bernays deceiving the public about bacon and eggs, you’re within your rights. But if you’re Joseph Stalin building communism in the Soviet Union and neighboring countries, you must stop now:

“It is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which, if really tried, may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering. It is the difference between a method which can be applied at any moment, and a method whose advocacy may easily become a means of continually postponing action until a later date, when conditions are more favorable. And it is also the difference between the only method of improving matters which has so far been really successful, at any time, and in any place, and a method which, wherever it has been tried, has led only to the use of violence in place of reason, and if not to its own abandonment, at any rate to that of its original blueprint.” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945)

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re neither a communist dictator nor a PR mastermind. What if you’re a manager trying to get your people to work hard and smart? What tools are available to you to make good work habits your company’s second nature?

Consider that every mega-successful company of our time has employed elements of social engineering. For example, this is how Hubspot’s VP of engineering, Eric Richard, runs his team:

“There are three key ingredients that go into creating a remarkable product culture. The first is ensuring that every person on your development team has an exciting and challenging mission. Then you need to give them the tools, resources, and autonomy to be successful in their mission. The third piece, and arguably the most challenging, is surrounding employees with high-wattage people who they can learn from and bond with.” (“Social Engineering: Why Managers Should Prioritize Team Bonding” by Eric Richard, Hubspot Product and Engineering Blog, August 20, 2015)

If you think through and provide the structure for positive action, you’re going to come out ahead. This structure could be your physical space, tools, and resources, or something less tangible, like personal relationships with coworkers.

Setting up such a structure serves one of two ends:

  1. Expanding opportunity, or
  2. Minimizing risk.

For example, giving your employees the latest and greatest software may expand the opportunity to do good work. Requiring them to use it may minimize the risk of making a mistake.

Notice that, in Hubspot’s case, all three elements of a great product culture expand opportunities for success, and none are designed to control risks. In any realistic work setting, you will need to do both, but there’s a danger to over-relying on controls—either overt dos and don’ts or socially engineered mind controls.

As leaders, we want like-minded followers. Sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between genuine leadership and manipulative plays. One way to tell the difference is that mind control is all about mitigating risk: we don’t trust employees to make the right choice, therefore we take the choice away and bamboozle them with propaganda.

When Van Marken published his remarkable innovations in the field of social engineering, a question immediately arose: how much structure is too much? One book critic answered it this way:

“In judging concerning this matter, however, distinction must be made between the different kinds of institutions. Many of the efforts of the employer such as those for the beautification of the grounds, the provision of pleasant places in which the noon meal can be taken, the putting of small gardens at the disposition of the employees, etc., are in no way subversive of independent self-help, while others clearly are intended to do for the men what they should do for themselves.” (a book review by W. F. Willoughby in the Journal of Political Economy, 1901)

Do you do for your employees what they should do for themselves, i.e. think, feel, and critically examine the evidence? If the answer is no, you’re in the business of employee engagement, as I understand it. If the answer is yes, you’re in the business of mind control. Both have been shown to be practical and effective. Both have their risks. Which would you rather do?


If you like having a choice, you might like my book, because it gives you many different ways of engaging employees.

8 surprising employee problems you can avoid with a modern intranet

Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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