From abusive behaviour to fake news, social media has had a bad press in recent times. But, like it or not, it is here to stay and its powerful presence is affecting the way leaders lead. Like him or not, President Trump offers a prime example.
Organizations, particularly commercial ones, were quick to see the customer-focused communicative value of social media, causing advertising budgets to move massively away from traditional media. But, the potential for social channels to improve leadership effectiveness in organizations, through interaction, content-sharing, and collaboration, has been less well understood or harnessed.
With the current mood of suspicion surrounding social media, we believe our upcoming report into its benefits and dangers in organizations is timely. The report, sponsored by UNICON and published by Hult Ashridge, has many implications for the role HR professionals can play in monitoring and steering the development and use of social media. We hope a number of the insights derived from our findings can be readily applied in organizations by leaders today.
The advantage of social media as a tool for leadership communication lies in its increased speed, wider breadth of reach, targetability, and an intimacy which allows more interactive and personal exchanges that can greatly enhance the relationship between leaders and followers.
Clever leaders use the intimacy of social media to nuance their messages for different audiences and for different individuals in the company
Followers, because the media implies choices, no longer go passively behind or tread in the footsteps of a leader. They are now much more selective, voluntary, multi-channelled and arguably better informed. Leaders too relate more directly and openly to followers, and clever leaders use the intimacy of social media to nuance their messages for different audiences and for different individuals in the company, whether that is to publicise organizational achievements or to establish themselves as thought leaders.
Openness however raises the question of personal exposure; should the personal and the professional mix? We heard that some older leaders tend to be wary of this. However, in our research we found, with more familiarity users tend to blur the two. Some personal exposure, particularly where it shows off attitudes to wide social issues, can help leaders emphasise their values and be seen as thought leaders.
We heard many concerns about privacy risks; an issue which does stop some leaders engaging with social media. The loss of time for reflection and headspace implied by constant attention to social media is perceived as a downside. Time management is always a problem for busy leaders and social media adds another dimension. However, it can be argued that, overall, digitization has saved time on many tasks.
What has changed in the leadership mix is the nature and granularity of the relationship between leaders and all those around them
Our study confirms that the traditional essentials of good leadership – trust, communication, influence and good relationships – remain unchanged. What has changed in the leadership mix is the nature and granularity of the relationship between leaders and all those around them, particularly their direct followers.
Clear, reliable, communication is essential in building trust. There is evidence that younger people are more trusting of CEOs who use social media well. On the other hand, social media, even more than with other forms of communication, can expose insincerity. So, authenticity is essential – leaders must have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to understand their personal values and purpose. The leader who out-sources – employing others to write their tweets – risks being seen as inauthentic.
With traditional organizational hierarchies being replaced by more ‘democratic’ forms of leadership, and followers empowered through their ability to access information more easily, leaders are no longer the sole source of information about their companies or sectors. To remain credible in this environment, leaders must be able to communicate strategy clearly, and increasingly they need to use social media tools to do so.
The tendency for social media to focus on soundbites rather than deep strategic thinking can cause problems. Absolute clarity on vision, mission and strategy of the business, and what the leader is trying to achieve should be the bedrock underpinning everything and all ‘soundbites’ should be aligned with that underlying rationale. Here HR can have a role in providing training and support. At a time when so much executive development focuses on soft management skills, our research found a definite need for L&D professionals to ensure that all leaders are crystal clear on their organizations’ strategic messaging.
For social media to work effectively for the organization it is no good trying to centralize it so that all output is corporate
Communicating messages that create a clear ‘line of sight’ down the organization is critical. Yet this is hard and a skill that needs to be learned. As we have observed too often, there is a surprising number of senior people who seem unable to articulate their strategic priorities.
Another potential downside to social media in organizations, where a steer from HR can be important, is where there is a loss of control or a trivialisation of the conversation or when it is taken over by those with the loudest voices. Here, it is important to stay ‘on top’ of messages, respond do not just pontificate, clarify if necessary, maintain dignified silence if not – it is the old PR adage of ‘don’t complain and don’t explain’.
For social media to work effectively for the organization it is no good trying to centralize it so that all output is corporate. This does not help individual leaders at all; social media is essentially an individualized tool. So, the key is to make sure everybody has the technical skills to be individually proficient, and to ensure that leaders and managers are as capable as those they are managing.
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Building this proficiency not only improves leadership effectiveness, but has a positive effect on employee engagement and recruitment. As we found, most people are more likely to trust and would like to work for a company whose leadership team is active on social media. This underlines why HR and L&D professionals should champion its use – not to mention use the tool effectively themselves.
HR could have much more impact here if, rather than seeing this as a ‘nuts and bolts’ issue, they could see effective use of social media as a USP for their leadership cadre. It is not just about technical expertise; it is about communicating effectively with upcoming generations of employees.
Social media has permeated every aspect of private life and increasingly business life, and leaders who fail to respond will find conversations and ideas are developing outside their reach, taking place across traditional boundaries both within their organization and outside it. As one leader we interviewed commented: “If the slowest mode of communication you have ever known is email, then your expectations are different and leaders must adapt to survive. People are used to being listened to and to having their voice heard through social media. They expect it at work too.”
In this new hyperconnected world, everybody has a greater opportunity to contribute to and influence decisions and outcomes. This can potentially lead to more ideas, more innovation and better collaboration, but also to tensions between ‘digital natives’, au fait with the media, and those less expert. It also means that there has been a shift in the power dynamics between leaders and their followers.
Every business needs a strong HR capability to guide and direct the use of the powerful leadership tools which social media offers
With this in mind, we believe HR can steal a trick by making sure that social media works in the interest of the organization. We did find that some leaders in our research had independently developed to become ‘fluent’ users of social media. In reality every business needs a strong HR capability to guide and direct the use of the powerful leadership tools which social media offers. It should not be left only to DIY learning.
A key finding from the research was that, while the spread of social media within organizations intensified the need for leadership development that emphasises emotional acuity, self-awareness, and excellent communication skills, technical skills training was also a priority. L&D should aim to create initiatives that fuse technological and soft leadership skills.
How well are organizations doing in embracing social media? Well, it is a mixed picture. Some are doing well and for them it is a ‘game-changer’. There is a group in the middle who are just starting to get to grips with the implications of social connectedness, and then there are a lot of companies who think it is all a lot of trouble and have made little progress. These companies need to think again.
It is unlikely that we can put the social media genie back in its bottle and we certainly would not wish to do so as it can bring so many clear benefits. However, we must acknowledge that there is a potential dark side, which is where HR expertise is needed. And for individual leaders, it is essential that that they embrace the changes as otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant to those they aim to lead.
Patricia Hind is Professor of Management Development at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. As a Business Psychologist she works with private and public sector clients, specializing in leadership, organizational behaviour and change management.
Viki Holton is Senior Research Fellow at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. Her interests include diversity and inclusion, HR, women’s career development and leadership. She co-authored How to Thrive and Survive as a Working Woman published by Bloomsbury in 2016.