What Social Media Means for Leadership

Guest blogger Jamie Notter on the real value of social media for our organizations: radically transforming leadership!

Social media is becoming more and more mainstream. It is now normal—even expected—for a company to make strategic use of tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, etc. in order to achieve positive business results. But with all the talk of a social media “revolution,” the conversation rarely ventures outside the boundaries of marketing and communications. I get it: we can’t rely only on broadcasting our message to target audiences and we no longer control our brand the way we used to. It’s true: social media is revolutionizing the world of marketing and communications.

But what about leadership and management? Why aren’t we talking about how social media is affecting the way we structure our organization or the way we design our core management processes? I think this is where the real power of social media actually lies. Social media has a lot to teach us about how to do the work of strategy, or how to hire and develop employees, even how we allocate resources internally or manage work flows.

Before we can have those conversations, however, we need to confront an inconvenient truth:

Management is failing.

I know this sounds a bit harsh, but I think we need to be honest with ourselves. While we do have a huge global economy supported by thousands and thousands of successful companies, we don’t actually have a lot of strong evidence that our organizations are succeeding BECAUSE of the way we manage them. In fact, there is increasing evidence that the way we manage them is actually holding us back. If we changed the way we manage, we could be much more successful than we are today.

Think about it: our general approach to management has not changed in over fifty years. The processes we use today (strategic planning, hiring practices, performance reviews, etc.) are the same ones our parents and even grandparents used. Why are we not startled by that lack of innovation?! And even worse, over the last fifty years we have seen a significant amount of scientific research that indicates that many of these practices are not effective, yet we continue to use them anyway. If you want those details, check out Pfeffer and Sutton’s book Hard Facts, Henry Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, and Dan Pink’s book Drive. Their arguments (and cited research) are compelling. Doing things the same way over and over again even though we have evidence they don’t work: that’s the definition of insanity.

So how, exactly, is social media going to get us out of this mess? Well, first it requires a deeper understanding of social media. I am not talking about the pros and cons of specific social media tools, the IPOs, or any of the hype. I mean understanding the deeper source of social media’s power and the real reason that social media’s growth dwarfs the performance of most companies:

Social media is succeeding because it taps into what makes us human.

Social media has given all of us the ability to create and share on a massive scale, without relying on external organizations or institutions. That’s a really big deal, actually. Through our networks we can produce our own news, create our own entertainment, and, more importantly, collaborate and solve problems and go places in our lives that are meaningful to us. That is the essence of being human. We were born to create and learn and collaborate and solve problems. That’s why social media has been so popular. We can’t help but be attracted to something that lets us be more human. It’s a deeply powerful force.

This is precisely the force that our current management regime has a difficult time accessing, and I think I have figured out why. Social media is succeeding beyond anyone’s imagination by tapping into what makes us human, and our organizations, on the other hand, are struggling because we run them like machines.

Management was invented in the industrial era, and it’s infused with machine thinking. We treat organizational systems like they are simple and linear, where power and control goes to the center, and the periphery’s actions simply follow the design of the cogs and gears. We design our organizations in the abstract, expecting them to work the same in any context, just like we do for machines. We build them for efficiency, consistency, predictability, and control. And while this has helped us with global productivity over the last century, its success has also become the seeds of its current failure because it has generated two big problems that never seem to go away:

Agility and engagement.

Nearly every organization I meet complains that they are not agile enough and they struggle with both employee and customer engagement. With the speed of today’s economy, they can’t afford to lose that competitive edge by shifting too slowly. They can’t afford the wasted potential of employees who are not fully engaged. It becomes harder and harder to thrive without overcoming these issues, but our machine organizations struggle with both issues.

And here’s why: machines are horrible at agility and engagement. It’s not in their nature. Yet social media, which taps into being human, does particularly well on these fronts. It has been remarkably agile and nimble, and it has practically rewritten the definition of engagement.

So do you see how all this comes together? Social media is growing through the roof because it taps into what makes us human, and our organizations are suffering from stale management based in machine thinking. We need our organizations to be more human.

So what does this look like? In our book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World (affiliate link), Maddie Grant and I present a framework for creating more human organizations. It will require significant change throughout the organization, affecting your organization’s culture, structure, processes, and expected workplace behaviors. But you can start the change anywhere, and from any level in the organization (just like social media did).

Here’s a quick example: a more human organization will be more open, which means embracing decentralization. Our machine-based organizations have been overly centralized, focusing control and power in the center. This improved productivity, but led to our problems with agility and engagement. Embracing decentralization means shifting control and power away from the center and towards the periphery.

This doesn’t mean radical decentralization. Some people will still be in charge of things. But how can you create a culture that allows greater decision-making at the edges, rather than just in the center? Google has done this through its now-famous “20% time” policy. All Google employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time working on anything they want. They get to decide what they work on, at least for that 20% chunk. They don’t have complete control, and that’s fine. But by giving them a focused container where they do have control, Google is feeding their need for human autonomy, and the results have been impressive (Gmail, for instance, was developed initially by a Google employee during their 20% time).

That’s just one example, but wherever you are in your organization you should be able to come up with other “containers”: limited areas where you can let people in the periphery make more decisions, have more visibility and voice, or take more action to solve the problems they are facing. As you do this, you’ll unlock new power. Your employees will be more engaged, and you’ll have more resources helping you to stay ahead of the competition.

And that’s just one example. There are similar opportunities to be found in embracing transparency, supporting more truth and authenticity, and building your capacity for experimentation and learning at all levels. The shift from a mechanical organization to a human one will go deep and wide. But don’t be daunted by it. Just get started. Wherever you are in the organization, there is something you can do to start moving the needle in the direction of being human. And as you do, you will likely start to see those frustrations with the current management regime start to dissipate. You may even discover that your organization can start to implement social media more effectively. But more importantly, you’ll remove the shackles of machine-based management that have been holding us back and increase your capacity to shape your own future.