Seven Ethical Social Hacking Tips for the Business World

Hello there, friends! It’s been a while since I’ve written a more business-oriented post given that I’ve been focused on more data science / machine learning-related stuff. But as I begin to type this, it’s 2:00am on a Thursday, and I woke up randomly inspired to write this post. (Can’t remember what I was dreaming about, but it must have been along these lines!)

One of the areas of life in which I’m most passionate is this idea of persuasion psychology. In my own words, persuasion psychology is the idea that humans are deeply irrational beings and thus behave in ways that are irrational yet oddly predictable. So for example, if you’re in line at Starbucks and the 5 people in front of you “pay it forward” by paying for the coffee of the person behind them, how much more inclined are you to also follow suit? You’re sort of defeating the purpose of “paying it forward” if you don’t accept the gift, but it’s a classic scenario of maintaining social status through reciprocation.

You might be surprised to learn that this is a legit field of study. Thinking about key influencers in the field, the first one that comes to mind is Dr. Robert Cialdini. Cialdini has written two best selling books, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, that I cannot recommend highly enough. Additionally, author Scott Adams has also written a great book — Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter — along the same lines using the 2016 election as a direct use case. (Fair warning on the latter: A lot of that book contains seemingly pro-Trump rhetoric, but if you can set aside your political leanings, you can still learn a lot about persuasion psychology.)

In the remainder of the post, I’ll cover what I believe to be seven ethical social hacking techniques I regularly use in the business world. And I have no problem admitting this because you’ll quickly find a unified theme across them all: being nice. None of these are intended to be manipulative, and if anything, they’re designed to help both me and other people. Social hacking can definitely be used in a bad, unethical way, but we’re not going to examine that trash here.

Alright, enough with the intro! Let’s get into it!

Unfortunately in our electronic world, it has become way too easy to avoid people for unsavory topics. Blame it on getting lost in your inbox or not seeing that IM pop up on your screen, the excuses are very easy and valid enough to come up with. (To be fair, those actually might be true and not excuses.)

In cases like this, I’ll set up a 30 minute meeting with the person — virtual or in person — for a few days out. In the meeting invite, I’ll very nicely state the information I’m looking for. One of two things will happen with this: either a) they will respond almost immediately via email or IM with the info you need or b) you’ll have the meeting and get the info you need. No need to make anybody feel bad even if you’re certain they’re actively dodging you; you got the info you need and can maintain a healthy working relationship.

Yes, it’s true: the unfortunate reality of most business settings is that office politics play a role in how decisions are made. Perhaps those office politics derive from leadership above, so associate level folks might be inclined to adhere to those even if they don’t personally agree. Whatever the case, it’s likely you’ll find yourself in a scenario when you need to broach a sensitive subject in this capacity.

I know it’s not exactly efficient, but a meeting is the only way to go here. Whether virtual or in person, your vocal tone and body language can de-escalate a sensitive matter by creating a welcoming environment for the other person. (Again, back to the overarching theme of being nice!) Look for places of common ground before delving into the “hard” stuff. By finding that common ground, you mentally anchor both yourself and the other party to a mutual success for your company, even if the details don’t exactly align. This mental anchor inclines you both toward seeking options or compromises that allow you to move forward without feeling like you’re directly stepping on anybody’s toes.

This one is something I directly picked up from the aforementioned Dr. Cialdini’s book, Influence. In the book, he tells a brief anecdote about how to receive help in a crowded area. If you very generally shout for help, your chances of getting help are actually pretty low. This is because most people will use a mental excuse of, “Well, there’s a lot of people around. Surely somebody else will help.” So the easiest way to combat this is by directly calling out a single individual. That single individual is now far more likely to assist given that they were called on directly.

This happens pretty often in the business world, again due to the advent of electronic messaging. It happens a lot where I’ll send an email to a distribution list or shared mailbox and don’t get a response. Again, I think the idea here of folks behind that group is, “Well surely somebody else is handling this.” That may or may not be a legit excuse, but in any case, you can side step this by finding out who comprises the group and selecting any individual from that group. Honestly, this isn’t my “go-to” regime as I like to give groups a chance, but if it happens enough that the group is unresponsive in a timely manner, selecting an individual to communicate with works pretty much every time.

I was tempted to call this one “playing dumb,” but that has a lot of negative connotations to it. This one goes hand-in-hand with many other tips on this list, like approaching sensitive subjects. Embracing naivety in these matters can go a long way! If conducted properly, the party on the other side will believe you’re a curious mind who is genuinely unaware about a topic. Coupled with positive vocal tone and body language, you can create an environment where your masquerading naivety still fosters a positive outcome for both parties.

Truth be told, of all the things on this list, this one comes closest to the line of being unethical. Why? Because you’re essentially lying. But I still include this on here anyway because despite the charade, a technique like this can still produce a positive business outcome and a good working relationship with the other person. This is one of the very, very few cases where the ends justify the means. Still, I feel like I have to be honest with you all by sharing this. Please be ethical with your practices!

Let’s face it: not everybody on a team pulls their own weight. Additionally, nobody likes being the bad guy of calling somebody out in this manner. Fortunately, there is a way to get around this: the good ol stand up meeting.

As a Certified Scrum Master, I know how to run an efficient stand up that promotes productivity without becoming “just another meeting.” In addition, this is also a great means of holding accountability without being overt about it. In my stand ups, I will pull up a tangible board of work (whether that be an agile or kanban board) and go down the line person by person to find out what people are working on. Not wanting to embarrass themselves in front of the rest of the group, the person not pulling their weight will quickly adjust their behavior to start taking on their fair share. Again, it’s harkening back to the same idea we discussed above about singling out a person from the group. But at least in this case, it’s far less overt since every single person is essentially being singled out.

As you can tell, reciprocation is a huge theme in persuasion psychology. People can’t help but want to “balance the scales” by helping those who have helped them. So simply put, if you want to increase your chances for cool opportunities, do as much as you can above and beyond your paid role. That could be volunteering on a department committee, providing consultation to an effort you’re not directly attached with, or taking on an extra assignment. All of these incline your chances toward other cool things in the workplace.

I think it pretty much goes without saying that a friend is far more likely to help you than a stranger is. At its core, there’s the constant cycle of reciprocation: if I help you in one area, you’ll help me in another. The kicker is that those means of reciprocation don’t have to be even in remotely the same field.

I’ll be a little more tangible with a personal example. I work with a lot of Indian native people who do things like eat traditional Indian food or celebrate traditional Indian holidays, like Diwali. Not trying to put any of my American coworkers in a negative light, but there are many who will refuse to do something like eat Indian food due to personal preference. But seeing an opportunity to connect with these great Indian folks, I’ll engage 100% of the time, no questions asked. And I’ll be totally honest: I am not really a fan of Indian food. (Except for samosas!)

It works out later that my working relationship is stronger with these folks, so they’re far more inclined to help me in whatever working capacity. And again, I’m not doing it to manipulate these folks. I genuinely am interested in connecting with others. If you know me at all, I’m really interested in spiritual practice and connection, which is why I love the word “namaste.” While often used as a traditional greeting, it can be translated in the following manner:

“My soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire Universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty and peace within you, because it is also within me. In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one.”

I think that’s just plain lovely, and as we continue to learn more about the universe through things like quantum physics, we’re finding this is quite literally true. It just so happens that the nice byproduct of that is better productivity in the workplace.

That’s a good place to wrap up this post. Phew, we covered a lot of ground! Hope you found some good stuff in here. Again, the core theme throughout all of these is promoting unity amongst all, which is why I have no problem sharing them. We’ll see you in the next post!

Machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Organizational Leadership, PMP, CSM