American business leaders have long grappled with societal changes that influence their business practices. The advent of organized labor in the late 1800’s and the entry of women into non-traditional factory jobs during World War II are but two examples of large societal shifts that have had a significant impact on how companies do business in our country. The rise in the use of social technologies like Facebook and LinkedIn are just the latest societal trend that leaders are grappling with.
Social Technologies Are Daunting to Corporate Leaders
It would appear that many leaders are choosing a default approach to addressing social technology use in their companies. According to research released by Robert Half Technology last year, over half of all companies surveyed (54%) completely restrict access to social media sites. Another 19% permit access to sites for business purposes only. There are a myriad of reasons for restricting access including concerns about security and decreased employee productivity. And if that’s not enough for busy leaders to think about, consider free sites like Glassdoor.com where people can “rate” the company they work for, including the performance of the CEO and the quality of the company’s culture.
Indeed, my experience with corporate leaders mirrors the research findings. In addition to legal and brand management concerns, many leaders are fatigued with the additional layer of communication social technology provides. While discussing the use of LinkedIn Groups feature as a possible way to connect a geographically dispersed management team, one of my clients exclaimed, “LinkedIn? I want to be LinkedOut!” He went on to say that there were already 14 company-sanctioned communication channels in his company; adding another mode was more than he was willing to take on.
It’s a Question of Openness, Not Technology Use
In her book Open Leadership – How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead author Charlene Li acknowledges that the “open microphone” culture of instant, free information sharing can be daunting to leaders. It’s understandable why many companies take the easy way out and simply say “no.” Hold up a minute, says Li—there are benefits to adopting social media practices within a company.
From her research with organizations Li believes that leaders who fail to harness the “groundswell” of employee sharing are missing a huge opportunity. The key issue, according to Li, is that leaders are concerned about giving up control. Social media seems so chaotic; how can a leader achieve results without some measure of control? She says this is the wrong question to ask. Instead, the question leaders should ask is, “How do I develop the kind of new, open, engaged relationships I need to get things done?”
How Leaders Can Be Open, Even If Their Companies Aren’t
This question serves an as excellent guidepost regardless of a company’s social media stance. Most people in leadership positions aren’t calling the shots on whether or not Facebook can be accessed via company servers. However, all leaders can encourage openness with their direct reports by following these suggestions:
Encourage learning. If a project fails ask, “What can we learn from this?” Listen carefully to the answer. If the undercurrent is “I learned not to take risks because there will be retribution” you have some work to do in fostering the open, collaborative environment you’re looking to build.
Admit your uncertainty. Organizations value decisiveness in their leaders. This is a valuable trait, but there are times when it’s also beneficial for your team to hear “I have reservations about X and here’s how we’re going to work through those concerns.” Showing that you have occasional hesitation helps your team relate to you and shows that it’s ok to talk out loud about the drawbacks of a situation.
Share company goals. I was stunned when a division leader recently asked me, “Should I share our company’s quarterly goals with my staff? Would they really find this helpful?” Yes, they would. Beyond simply sharing data, as a leader you must help people “connect the dots” to understand how their job contributes to the overall company objectives. Doing so helps people see how their daily actions matter and reduces the impression that only the company benefits.
Ask, “How Can We Make This Even Better?” Striving for continual improvement sends the message that you’re open to enhancing the way your department functions. Want to really show them you value feedback? Get feedback from a peer (or better yet, your team) on how you can improve something in your own work life. One caveat: if the team senses that you’re asking because you’re disappointed in their initial performance, this tactic won’t be very helpful. Be sure to stress that improvement is an ongoing process; the “how to make it better” question aids in that process.
There’s no need for you to wait for your company to integrate the new social technologies into its daily operations. Make a pact with yourself to start being more “open” today with your staff. When your company finally catches up, you’ll be just that much ahead of the game.