Leadership in the time of Social Media

by eskokilpi

We are used to thinking that what happens in organizations is the realization of the choices of powerful people. They are supposed to know what is going on as they make those choices. However, the stories about decision making during wartime, or during the recent financial crises, make it very clear that politicians and executives are far from sure of what has been happening and they simply don’t know what is now happening.

Partially, it is because of corrupted communication. The results of failing communication can be catastrophic. In today’s FT Tim Harford quotes a study on communication and decision making during the Vietnam War: “The joint chiefs of staff were warned that Lyndon Johnson did not like split advice. Robert McNamara also argued that government would be inefficient if department chiefs were to express disagreement with the president.”

The leader who isolates himself from dissenting opinions is bound to make disastrous decisions. The failures in communication in Vietnam continued in Iraq. According to researchers, Donald Rumsfeld and his immediate subordinates made dissent extremely difficult during the first years of the war. It is normal, but costly in corporations and disastrous in politics to filter out information that contradicts preconceptions. Failures of leadership are very often a result from failures in communication.

All organizations are power and communication structures. Very often communication is corrupted just because of power. “If you deliver differing views to your boss, it is highly likely that you are not going to be listened to in the future.” For ambitious people, this is the worst possible fate. What social media try to achieve, is subordinates giving truthful information about what is going on, which they don’t do, and bosses listening attentively, which they don’t.

If this dynamic is taking place at every level of the organization, you are in big trouble. Each organizational level that creates a strong boss, ambitious subordinate relation is a distorting barrier to communication and informed decisions.

Business leaders try to know what is going on in the corporation through employee surveys and 360-degree appraisals. Organizations are full of local knowledge, but if bosses need to ask outsiders to tell them how their organization really works, there is trouble in store. If organizations want to be relevant and effective, they will need to incorporate elements of bottom-up, real-time information delivery and real-time listening into their management thinking. Be that pushing real-time updates or subscribing to people who matter.

The role of the effective leader during the time of social media is to widen and deepen communication. Leadership is participating and exercising skills of conversation which uncorrupts information, keeps the necessary paradoxes alive, and keeps on opening up the possibility of new meaning rather than closing down the further development of thought.

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Thank you Tim Harford