Engineers, industrial engineers and nocebos

By Lew Cox 

Engineers, in general, have been both toasted and reviled over time. Engineers have received credit for innumerable breakthroughs in space and aerospace, in manufacturing, in medical instruments, et cetera, almost ad infinitum. Engineers have also had blame heaped upon them, fairly or unfairly, for many of the ills of mankind. When I was in graduate school in the 1960s, engineers in general were scorned as those who were responsible for just about everything that was wrong with civilization. Those were the days of draft card burnings, marches on various governmental agencies, deliberate destruction of data banks and computer centers, and a host of other forms and recipients of protests. I will leave any arguments about the protests’ accomplishments for more learned minds than mine.

The fact is that engineers have always been, and will always be, needed to make discoveries and solve problems of all types in all industries and all organizations. Their formal education, coupled with their innate drive to investigate and attack problems and challenges, make them the go-to people for such activities.

Of all the fields of engineering, industrial engineers are most broadly educated (a perhaps personally biased, but correct generality), having an educational foot solidly in engineering and quantitative tools, but with an ancillary background in business and management. Their ability to speak both languages is an invaluable asset.

Yet, Industrial Engineering is perhaps the most easily misunderstood engineering profession. No one is alive from the earliest olden days of IE, when the stereotypical IE was the clichéd “efficiency expert” and was there solely to get rid of people. As that generation of people has moved on, newer generations do not think quite the same way of IEs.

Still, the job and reputation of industrial engineers is to improve things, to cut the time, effort, and material needed to manufacture something or carry out some service, and to rework old systems to take advantage of electronic and electro-mechanical devices to reduce human input and human errors. No matter how you slice it, if you get more output with the same inputs or get the same output with fewer inputs, this still boils down to possibly getting rid of jobs or slowing hiring.

If, on the factory floor (no matter how “factory floor” is defined) you see someone who looks as if he or she is gathering data, there is a natural reaction of suspicion. “Maybe they are after MY job.” Part of the criticism may have some basis, but perhaps a good deal of it is due to what has been termed “the nocebo effect” (See the work of Paul Enck and Winfried Häuser).

Virtually everyone is familiar with the use of placebos for some of the participants in a medical trial. These participants are used as control groups and are given a fake medication or receive a fake procedure, and their reactions are carefully noted along with the reactions of those participants who receive the actual medication or procedure.

Nocebos are kind of the other side of placebos. In a medical trial, the participants are given information about the possible side effects of the medicine/procedure being studied. Oddly, a significant proportion of those receiving placebos develop these very side effects. This is the nocebo effect. Since the placebo-participants expect the side effects may happen, they do.

Perhaps something similar to the nocebo effect dogs industrial engineers. If a “seer” forecasts bad happenings for you, you tend to see anything bad that happens as validation of that forecast. If a worker knows an industrial engineer is in the work area, and expects that to lead to fewer workers needed, he or she will tend to see any later reduction in the workforce as a direct result of the IE’s presence. Thus, the opinion will be perpetuated that IEs cause people to lose their jobs.

If a version of the nocebo effect is out there, what can you, as a practicing IE do to ameliorate this feeling on the part of the workforce? Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no silver bullet. Some semi-proactive actions you can take include the following:

  • If it is likely your work will, indeed, lead to a reduction in force in a particular work area, try to find out from that area’s managers (and above) what will be done for those caught in the reduction in force, and with their blessing pass this information along to the work area. Better yet, get the managers to come in and have a meeting where the managers speak to and listen to, the workers and address their concerns on their level (I haven’t had good luck with this one).
  • Try to keep the area’s workers as informed and involved as you can in the project or study whose completion may affect their job; i.e., get as much buy-in as you can.
  • Finally, try to keep the affected area’s workers fully informed of the greater good that will be in place as a result of your work.

The above three items, and it is likely you are already doing them, will go far toward defusing the nocebo effect.  If you can keep the workers from expecting bad things to happen, it is more likely the bad things will not happen. Yet, it is likely that a few more generations of IEs, coupled with your and the IE organization’s continual reminding the workers of the longer-term greater good (like company growth) that came about because of the effort of the industrial engineers, will be the only long-term cure for the nocebo effect.