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Home >Mint-lounge >Will social media humble the workplace bullies?

How many times have you heard well-known leaders say, “I don’t care who thinks what, I will get done whatever I think is right"? Ironically, over centuries, people have been conditioned to expect such authoritarianism. They admire macho leaders who intimidate and bully them.

Sometimes, the reaction of people towards workplace bullies reminds me of the “Stockholm Syndrome". In much the same way that long-time hostages of a powerful abductor start admiring him and submit willingly, normal employees simply surrender to a powerful leader. Such coercive and authoritarian styles were fine until recently—for the leader had some prerogatives over how data, knowledge and opinions were accessed and disseminated. He knew more than the followers and could play around with this privilege to secure special entitlements over the others in the team.

The Internet and, more so, social media has changed all this. Our world is more informed than ever because of the Web, smartphones and networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. The IBM CMO study 2011, From Stretched to Strengthened—Insights from the Global Chief Marketing Officer Study, suggests that our hyper-connected world now creates more new data every two days than was created from the beginning of time till 2003.

Listening is a skill:Effective leaders encourage open discussions.

Leaders are no longer able to rely on the old ways of managing. Those with bullying traits or closed minds cannot guard information, work behind closed doors, or manipulate affairs through a small coterie of colleagues for long. Social media exposes them in many ways.

First, people can create a parallel world of decision making in the virtual space through peer-to-peer networking which undermines the monopoly of direction that leaders traditionally enjoyed. Second, a raging debate in the virtual space providing counter data and opinion raises many new points of view which the leader has to reckon with, compared with what used to be solely his/her deciding view in the past. Moreover, with access to data, information and insights from the World Wide Web, ordinary people today are well-equipped both to challenge the leader and offer him/her rich counterpoints. Social media can have a very humbling effect on opinionated leaders.

The rise of social media calls for new types of leadership skills. For leaders to succeed, they must communicate constantly. This involves far more listening than telling. The new leader has to be transparent, flexible and inclusive—reaching out to teams almost habitually.

Many leaders—across cultures globally—have been raised in more authoritarian times than today’s Internet-enabled social expressiveness will permit. They all have to unlearn some skills and learn new skills such as building consensus among a group of well-informed, networked and hence highly opinionated colleagues.

Some suggestions on how to do this

Rs Start with listening

One of the best ways to ensure you carry along team members is to listen to their perspectives. Active listening is a skill. It needs genuine interest on the part of the leader. Many leaders hold meetings apparently to listen, but end up speaking all the time. Listening for the “unsaid" and for the perspectives of team members is a competency that great leaders possess. Treat your team as active participants, not recipients.

• Engage in an open debate and discussion

Effective leaders today take the pain to engage in a genuinely open discussion without imposing their views. They engage in “conversations" with key stakeholders. They summarize, restate, and bring to the fore the different views of team members. Where the teams are large and dispersed, social media can be a powerful tool to start a conversation. Participation, involvement and a true opportunity to present one’s views make people see the other’s point of view and ease the task of the leader in building consensus.

• Present, uphold and pursue a point of view

Lest all this convey total permissiveness, let me clarify that in the end a strong point of view matters. After gathering all points of view, leaders must evolve a point of view they can defend. Again, social media is handy. You can blog actively in the digital space and make your ideas reach millions instantly. If as a leader you have a distinct point of view and you are seen as presenting and upholding it with courage of conviction, you will be respected and followed.

The followers you can generate on Twitter are likely to be far more “influential" than what you could get by exhorting people in the physical space of “meetings". Twitter demands you organize your thoughts cogently within the limited words it can hold. A whole new attention-deficit generation has no time for lengthy speeches and moralizing “vision statements". If a leader—through brief but well-articulated packetsof views—gently persuades people to see a new perspective, s/he has a stronger chance of winning over people. That’s the power of Twitter. It’s almost like brief two-line dohas replacing epic poetry in another era. But beware: Twitter will not allow you to bully and justify ruthlessness as decisive leadership.

Hopefully, social media will humble the big bosses of the corporate world. The new world of shared and ubiquitous communication will demand leaders command respect instead of demanding it. More importantly, through the instant “like" type of features in Facebook and live posts across the Web, leaders will get feedback in real time. The better among them will listen, engage and influence. The worse will continue to seek opportunities to bully and will ignore the power of the new media—to their peril.

Sripada Chandrasekhar is vice-president and head—HR at IBM India/South Asia. The views expressed here are personal.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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