Oct 082013

Do you know your coworkers’ hometowns? Their favorite colors? Their current level in Farmville? If you answered “yes” to all three questions, there may be a very serious management concern here. More and more studies show that rather than creating tighter bonds, the intensifying drumbeat of social media is actually driving us further and further apart.

A University of Birmingham (UK) researcher has gone so far as to suggest (in an extensive study) that the image-happy individuals among us actually harm personal and professional relationships with each new image they post (see “Tagger’s Delight? Disclosure and Liking in Facebook: The Effects of Sharing Photographs Amongst Multiple Known Social Circles“). And it’s not just that we’re getting to the point of annoyance with those who overpost. A University of Michigan study posits that the more time we spend in social media, the more depressed about our relationships we become (see “Social Relationships and Depression: Ten-Year Follow-Up from a Nationally Representative Study“).

Just the folks we want working on our teams! Staff who are bummed out and loathed by their peers!

It may be time to take a serious step back from social media and consider (gulp!) actually spending time, face-to-face, with other human beings. In the process, we get the opportunity to reinstitute our basic concept of professional distance.

The need for professional or clinical distance has long been recognized as a key to impartiality in business and medical decision making. While empathy has its place, it can’t override the value of making decisions based on the situation and the environment. In a society where personal information flows in a torrent, stemming that tide may actually improve our professional culture and create a higher level of self-worth among our coworkers and peers.

I’m not suggesting a mass “unfriending” of those with whom we work. Instead, it’s time to create some controls over what information goes to whom.

The “Business You” Vs. the “Home You”

I was reading an article in Project Manager Today (UK) the other day, and tried sharing it with my wife. I was about two sentences in when she feigned sleep. Shocking! She didn’t care. Had I continued, I’m sure I would have been silenced by rolling eyes or a raised hand. In social media, we often share information to the wrong audience, as all of our audiences are rolled together into a single group. The same Facebook page that displays information about the movie we saw last night is reviewed by family and business associates. Bad move. Business associates don’t need that level of information.

The University of Birmingham study references a host of other studies that all say overlapping our varied social circles comes at a price. And the price is a classic moment of “too much information.”

There’s a simple-enough cure: create two circles. There’s no limit to the number of profiles you can establish on social media. For most, it’s a matter of ensuring that you simply assign the right people to the right profile.

And if you’re worried about keeping up with the latest about your life on two profiles? Keep the “business you” information to a minimum. Add to it only when there are changes that relate directly to (and, ideally, add value to) those in that narrower circle.

The Value of Mystery

I have watched my youngest son (aged 22) take full advantage of this and has actually eliminated and then recreated his image on social media. It was amazing watching the transformation. First, he pared down a master list of his contacts, and then he eliminated his profile. When he came back, he reinstituted contact with those he felt appropriate for his circle. For the rest, he created an alternative profile.

He finds it compelling that his more shadowy profile has prompted some interesting real-world contacts and queries.

You don’t post as much as you used to. What have you been up to? Are you still…?

He’s also discovering that when he posts to his nonpersonal profile, he gets a much more significant response. People seem genuinely interested to know the latest, since they know he’s not on that social profile daily, reporting on his dietary habits or wildlife sightings. There’s more than a grain of truth to the old axiom “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Getting Back to What Matters

Albert Mehrabian’s theories on the likability of messaging reinforces this need to get away from the simple words of social media. The UCLA professor has generated studies that show that simple words convey only 7% of our messages as a whole. The remainder is generated by our body language, inflection, and physical distance. In other words, 93% of the likability of our messages is lost through conventional social media.

If we want to truly win hearts and influence those around us, the problem is likely not that we are not communicating enough through social media. It’s that we are sending out messages that have limited likability, and that we are sending out more and more of them to a circle of acquaintances that may or may not appreciate the message. If we can become more discriminating in who is getting which messages and if we can limit the messages we’re sending, we can actually improve our professional relationships and get a higher level of connectivity to those we genuinely need to connect to.

You can find me on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/carlpritchard/) or by joining the Cutter Consortium Group on LinkedIn. If you “friend” me on Facebook, you’ll find I have a dog named Mocha, I travel to Ohio quite a bit, and I have a brother-in-law who is an amazing car salesman. But then, you really didn’t want to know that, did you? I can be reached via e-mail at cpritchard@cutter.com.


  One Response to “Maintaining Some Professional Distance”

  1. You wasted my time stating the obvious. What you should really write is – THINK before you type/send/act. This world is becoming filled with the trivial. It will soon be filled with the equivalence of zombies

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