Want to know how dark and manipulative you can be? Here’s an experiment.
You are the CEO of a mid-sized company. You’re a cut-throat businessman so all you care about is your the company’s success, which you measure in profit.
Your task? Figure out how to get maximum value from your employees at minimal cost to the company.
Here’s what I would do.
- ZERO-HOUR CONTRACTS
A zero-hour contract is great for business. When times are good, you have an army to call upon. When times are bad, you don’t have to pay anyone anything. There’s no commitment or loyalty on your part. But there’s commitment on the part of the employees because although it’s a zero-hour contract, they need to keep enough time free just in case they get the call.
1) You can’t do this with everyone. Zero-hour contracts are most effective when instituted amongst the worker bees, the people who are on the front lines and in the trenches. You need the higher levels of the hierarchy to be traditionally employed so they can manage the workers.
2) People will quit if you don’t give them enough work. So be unpredictable. Give them loads of hours one week, none the next, a good amount for the next couple weeks etc. Keep them guessing. And if they complain about the lack of work? Explain that it’s the nature of your business and you can’t do anything about it.
- RESPONSIBILITY AND COMPENSATION
Is there a zero-hour worker or a mid-level manager who is annihilating all his targets and earning you a lot of money? Good. You want to encourage this behaviour.
Offer them roles and responsibilities, but with no further compensation. This is a great play when you need supervisors but don’t want to pay supervisors. Or when you need someone to perform managerial duties but don’t want to pay a manager’s salary.
Give them responsibility for other staff members. Bring them in to open up or close down for the day. Assign them an “important” task and explain to them how they are the best person for it. Drop into the conversation that it would be looked favourably upon in the future.
Whatever it is, emphasise the intangible benefits of the responsibilities. Allude to pride, increasing levels of trust, setting a good example to others, duty, hard work and how it’s an opportunity to learn and gain experience.
Also, pay them enough to survive, but not enough to thrive.
- THE ROLE OF OWNERSHIP
A sense of ownership increases performance. You’ll find this to be true in nearly all professions and roles. The most empowering way to give a sense of ownership would be to give actual ownership. As in, if the company hits it’s targets, everyone gets a share of the profit.
But that’s expensive. Don’t do that.
Instead, promote the psychological sense of ownership without forfeiting actual ownership. To do this for example, with a manager, you need to make them feel pride at the companies success (as if it were a direct result of their efforts), and feel shame and embarrassment at the companies failure (as if it were all their fault).
This is tricky to do, but if done right, you amplify the output of your employees. When your staff is invested in your success, you unlock a new source of energy in their performance.
- KISSING UP, KICKING DOWN
If everyone was equal, no one would be inspired to get better. By instituting clear and distinct hierarchies, you can encourage comparison and compel your employees to want to climb higher.
Those at the lower levels will feel inferior to those higher up, so they’ll try to emulate them. Those in the middle will inferior to those above them, so they’ll flatter and try to gain recognition. They’ll also feel superior to those below, but scared of falling back to their level, so they’ll endeavour to continually surpass them.
This sort of culture is dangerous when advancement and reward is based on political ability. So make your company one that rewards only performance and actual results. That way, everyone is trying to be as good as the people above them and better than the ones below.
The result is employees get consistently better, and the company makes more money.
- INCREASE DEPENDENCY
Gifts are powerful. The recipients feel appreciated if the gifts are sincere, valuable and unexpected.
When I say valuable, what I mean is, give gifts that are high in perceived value but low in actual cost. Possibilities are dependent on the assets at your disposal, but you want each gift you give to look like time was given to come up with it, like it’s valuable and exclusive, and that it is sincere and not a bribe.
Another way to increase dependency is to offer perks. The same rationale from gifts applies to perks. Make them high perceived value and low cost.
The final way to increase dependency is make it difficult for people to leave.
Make them work long hours. Leave them only enough time to see their family and not enough to explore and meet new people. Encourage regular social occasions with other employees so that their only friends are the people they work with.
It also helps if you use custom systems and processes and indoctrinate them in your own way of thought through training and workshops. Hammer it into them. This makes it harder to find another job as their familiarity is only with your way of doing things.
When you combine all this together it becomes near impossible for someone to walk away. Their entire skillset, their identity, all of their friends are with the company. If they leave, they leave behind a significant portion of their life.
The inability to walk away is dependency. Promote it.
- MAKE PROMISES BUT NEVER FULFIL THEM
Another way to motivate? Encourage your staff with the possibility of future gain: Promotions. Pay rises. More stature within the company if they keep doing what they’re doing.
Think of it like a carrot in front of a horse’s nose. If you dangle it too close, the horse will grab it and you’ll be down a carrot. Too far in front and the horse won’t be interested.
But keep it slightly out of reach and the horse will feel like it’s close enough to taste and far enough away to require a greater effort to reach.
- THIS ISN'T ABOUT YOU OR ME
Of course, the danger of exploiting your employees is that they’ll catch you out. That they’ll see right through your ploys. A few will leave. You can’t help that. But what you can do is arm yourself with a response for anyone willing to call you on your exploitive practices.
Here’s what you do.
Create a narrative. Come up with a story that emphasises how the company is on a mission, a quest, and that the mission is bigger than you, bigger than them. And then be ready to tell them about the sacrifices others have made, you included, in service of the cause.
What you’re trying to imply is that this whole thing is bigger than you and them, and that you think their petty complaints and wants are selfish and egotistical. Don’t actually say that. Just imply it.
And while you’re at it, exaggerate how the time spent dealing with these petty issues is time that could be better spent solving critical problems.
After all, people love purpose. If you don’t have one, create one. An inspiring, vague mission will save you where objective reasoning and discussion will not.
- MAKE THEM YOUR SLAVE
In Ancient Rome, a man in debt was considered a slave. The most efficient way to bind someone to you is to create a debt. How?
The easiest way is to do favours. Sometimes small, sometimes big. Favours create indebtedness. Because of the reciprocity bias we find it difficult not to repay a favour that is done to us. So your goal is to stay in positive credit so that the employee always feels like they owe you something. Never let the account be settled.
Another way to make people feel indebted is to catch them doing something wrong. Or create a scenario where they are forced to do wrong. Then, you forgive them. Do this several times and you bind the person to you.
Because who could feel good walking away from someone that has done so much for them and forgiven them their mistakes so regularly?
I’m not advocating exploitation as a strategy. But it’s useful to explore how exploitation actually works. As Publius Syrus says, “He can best avoid a snare who knows how to set one.”
By coming to know the negative, we learn the positive. By figuring exactly how to exploit someone we can avoid others taking advantage of us. By increasing our understanding the art of persuasion, influence and power, we can escape those who would use it’s weapons to enslave us.
An under-rated method of defense is learning to become a master of attack.