The Rickety House That Social Media Has Built

If the Internet was considered “the great equalizer,” the early days of social media adoption -- the form of user-generated and publicly shared content -- was considered the next phase of the level playing field. Social media took the brand message out of the exclusive control of the brand and enabled the everyday user to sculpt and shape the public’s perception of that brand nearly as equally (if not more so for brands that weren’t paying attention at the time).

Then came social networks. Suddenly, people could not only share content publicly, but they could find, connect, and share content with more people more easily. Early platforms like MySpace and Friendster yielded ground to today’s behemoths like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat. As more and more people began connecting through these platforms, posting their own content, and messaging or texting one another through mobile applications, social networks became synonymous with “social media.” But something else began to happen, too. Something not terribly social and, in some respects, far more sinister.

First, in a fairly benign way, “social media” became a popularity contest. People started judging others and making judgements about themselves based on the number of friends/followers/connections they had. Then, social media became an easy way for people to become victimized, stalked, or bullied. Next came fraudsters and fake news. At first, fake news existed primarily to attract unwitting users to click on a link – often a sensationalized headline – so that the person publishing that link would get paid for driving traffic to a fraudulent website. Sometimes, too, fake news (or fake accounts) have been used to disparage a brand. Fake news has more lately come into prominence in relation to politics, but instead of strictly being about making money, it has also been used to sway public opinion.

All of these problems should concern leaders because their organizations and their teams can singularly or collectively suffer from any number of these issues which can be bad for business, bad for morale, and just bad precedents to deal with. Now, too, leaders have to deal with an impending wave of another form of social dysfunction affecting the workplace: the inability to communicate “beyond the device.”

What I’m referring to, in the parlance of HR talent acquisition managers, is the growing lack of proper interpersonal relationship skills. Granted, today’s problem – the breakdown in the ability to communicate through non-electronic channels – cannot be solely attributed to social media. It probably started with the widespread adoption of email, and the problems wrought by poor email practices have been well-documented. Messaging and social networking platforms, however, have taken this problem to a whole new level.

We expect “adults” (people over 30?) to know better. They grew up in an age before email, smart phones, and social media, after all. Yet these electronic forms of communications so readily allow us to avoid confrontation that they’re often used inappropriately, for example, when a phone call or face-to-face conversation would help clarify and expedite a process ten-fold.

Mere conflict avoidance isn’t the only problem either. Electronic communication enables passive-aggressive behavior, reduces self-censorship, facilitates poor grammar and writing skills, and disables tone, intonation, and other non-verbal cues that help us understand one another. Unless we create leaders with higher powers of mental telepathy and persuasion, we will be evermore incapacitated at the chances of evoking change in an era with dulled and diminished communications.

Now take this current challenge and multiply it. Today’s teenagers and young adults have grown up with all of these electronic channels and devices. These students go to college and come out looking for jobs at your organizations, organizations that don’t conduct all their communications the way the students have for the majority of their lives. Who’s responsible for training these new hires in these “beyond the device” skills? How much time will it take for the new hire to master these skills effectively? What is the impact on the leader asked to manage these in-development members?

Anticipating these same problems, courses and programs have begun cropping up to address the problem before young adults even hit the workplace, programs like The Adulting School, launched “to teach millennials how to be functioning grown-ups by showing up on time and paying their credit-card bills,” writes New York magazine. Even stalwart Dale Carnegie Training has gotten in on the act with its newly launched Generation.Next program (“Many young people lack the social relationship skills needed to interact with adults in the business world. Generation.Next can help teens develop communication skills beyond their device, and start engaging with others in a meaningful way.”) Are these programs signs of the times or just misguided aberrations?

What are you seeing in today’s workplace when it comes to communication skills? Is there a need for programs like this, and do they even have to be limited to just younger adults? How often do electronic communications and weakened interpersonal interactions affect your workforce? Better still, what are you doing to remedy the problem? I would love to hear your suggestions and solutions.