Social Media and Leadership Stagnation

Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times column yesterday posed a question about social media’s effect on political leaders that made me wonder how these tools might be affecting our business leaders, as well.

Friedman questioned whether the diminished number of successful political leaders in the world today is one result of too many people voicing their opinions on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media that give them a means of instantly commenting on everything leaders do and say, or perhaps are even thinking about doing or saying. He adds:

The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations—top-down—to overwhelmingly two-way conversations—bottom-up and top-town.

He notes that we derive some benefits from this new communications norm. But he asks, “Can there be such a thing as too much participation—leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?”

As in politics and elsewhere, we in PR have seen the rapid and intense rise of social media within our own more immediate world of employee communications, an area that heated up even more today when Microsoft announced it is paying a premium $1.2 billion for Yammer, a four-year old enterprise social network service used by businesses to create private networks for employee project collaboration and information sharing. Besides Yammer, companies are implementing internal podcasts, video programs, Twitter-like applications, and other social media. And employees are demanding a voice for everyone who wants a say in how the company goes about its business and presents itself and its products to stakeholders. Corporate communicators, who now love being on the forefront of internal social media and the opportunities for comment these tools offer, are delighted to grant this demand. C-suite executives are reluctantly giving in to it.

This communication a good thing.

For too long employees had no (or only a very quiet) voice. They were communicated at, not with, by leaders and many in corporate communications who thought they knew what employees needed to know and were highly reluctant to listen to employee opinions.

Finally, their voices are being heard.

Could it be possible, though, that the proliferation of criticism and comment on our internal social media is starting to cause leadership stagnation within companies around the world, companies whose leaders (like their political counterparts) are being second-guessed so often that they’re waiting to move forward until they get a greater consensus from those who are loudly and persistently speaking out?

Many have noted the increase in ever-delayed product launches, the decline of innovation, and the hording of large stashes of cash within today’s companies. I don’t know that it’s true, but perhaps, these situations result, at least in part, from leaders’ fear of making decisions that few within their organizations (not to mention outside stakeholders who also grasp an understanding of social media’s power) would find acceptable.

We hope our leaders are listening to a wide range of opinions, opinions that coincide with their own and those that conflict directly with them. Nothing should block the upward flow of comments, and nothing should filter out the controversial. We hope, too, that our leaders have the skills to listen thoroughly and to then quickly make decisions that benefit not only their companies, but also their stockholders, employees, and other stakeholders.

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