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3 November, 2018


Is LinkedIn the new Facebook?

Thoughts on social networking, professional behaviour, and virtue signalling

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about whether or not work colleagues (especially those in a hierarchical work relationship) should be friends on social media.  As someone who strongly believes in a common sense approach to most things, rather than in deontological rigidity, I see no problem with it, provided due care is taken and the professional and personal realms are kept neatly separated.  If I were a boss of a firm (or, to stay in my own professional world, a school principal), I would avoid making or accepting new friend requests on Facebook. The pitfalls are obvious. Conversely, if I had a pre-existing friendship with a colleague, I would certainly not ‘unfriend’ them:  a horrible expression, and a horrible concept.  I would simply have a chat about exercising circumspect professional judgement:  for example, strong privacy settings and restraint with regard to public likes or comments.

It surprises me, though, that sometimes the same people who are afraid of exposing themselves to criticism, or allegations of nepotism, and who stay clear of Facebook or Instagram intimacy, seem to have no qualms about networking on LinkedIn – a forum that has long ceased to be a professional network, and instead has become a glorified version of Facebook, complete with all the nauseating humblebragging and virtue signalling.  It concerns me to see bosses, CEOs, school principals etc. praise their employees on LinkedIn (“I am so proud of what my wonderful deputy John Smith has achieved today!”), only to then see ‘John Smith’ duly reply a few days later something on the lines of:  “It is so wonderful to work for a fantastic CEO like Jemima Puddle-Duck!”

For good and credible leaders, it is important to acknowledge the work of their staff, but does it need to be done in such a cheesy, such a public way?  Is Jemima’s pride in John, or indeed John’s gratitude to Jemima, of any interest to the wider LinkedIn network?

Individualised consideration for staff has been identified as a core pillar of transformational leadership.  Publicly singling out selected staff, however, has rightly been branded a pseudo-transformational strategy:  it foments favouritism and puts pressure on employees to reciprocate the compliment, thus eliciting insincere flattery, rather than the form of sincere gratitude that used to manifest itself in ‘thank you’ notes of appreciation.  Last but not least it causes concern to those who refuse to play such political games, or who don’t avidly ‘like’ the social media postings of their company or their boss, but secretly wonder whether they might get left out when the next career opportunity beckons. 

I have recently found a handwritten note from a colleague, written precisely five years ago, that started with the words:  “Congratulations on not just surviving, but thriving in your first week!”  It was a lovely and unexpected gesture, and it meant a lot to me then, as it does now.  I did not need thousands of strangers to know about it at the time, and I only mention it now because it illustrates my point: remaining mindful of the difference between genuine and disingenuous appreciation of colleagues.

This public LinkedIn exchange of niceties has become a political power game, fraught with problems, masked as recognition of staff talents, yet serving a hidden agenda.  Apart from fomenting favouritism and eliciting flattery, it also serves the purpose of signalling to the world what an awesome employer you are.

Oh, how I am longing for the good old days of sincerity and friendship, the kind gestures behind closed doors, the unspoken trust and loyalty that was based on common goals and did not need to resort to such techniques.

And by the way:  today I have helped an elderly lady over the road.  Now all I am wondering about is what the best time would be to post this strategically on LinkedIn, so that my virtuous deed will be admired by the maximum amount of people.  Advice, anyone?

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