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Four ways to improve your communication skills on social and virtual platforms

As organisations across the world move to virtual and social platforms, leaders need new skills to ensure they best communicate, connect and motivate employees, finds research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education

Video conferencing Photo by visuals on UnsplashThe world changed for businesses all around the world on or about 16 March, 2020. Before that, business as usual was relatively well understood. Resources, supplies, production, sales and delivery made up the ecosystem that needed to be managed and most leaders understood pretty much how to do this. The coronavirus epidemic has introduced significant tensions into each part of that system that leaders are now struggling to resolve. These tensions are not really problems to be solved, nobody has any answers at the moment. Rather they are dilemmas – situations in which difficult choices must be made when most of the options are equally undesirable. For example, government loans and financial rescue plans are a life-line for many, yet building up debt for the future is something most business leaders are uncomfortable with.

The pandemic is clearly having an enormous impact on how we live our lives. The comprehensive move to virtual homeworking has offered short term salvation for many organisations, meaning that business can at least continue to some extent, but this brings its own dilemmas. We know that communications and keeping in touch with staff and customers is more important than ever, yet there is an absolute plethora of communication platforms available, with their differing functionalities, advantages and disadvantages. Virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Platform abound, and our use of social media sites such as Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok and Messenger have increased significantly. This is partly because social media is a great place to find up to date information, but also because it fulfils our need to keep in touch with friends, families and work colleagues.

New research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education has examined how social media in particular is shaping the relationship between leaders and their teams. The current crisis places a sharp focus on the communications skills of leaders to be able to connect with and motivate a nervous workforce, struggling in an uncertain environment. A clear advantage of using social media for leaders is that it is a great way of keeping teams engaged whilst working remotely. Communications can be direct, in the moment and relatively informal. Yet the use of social media sites for leadership needs specific skills that are new to some, and also creates unique tensions in four particular areas that leaders must learn to manage:

● Firstly, for social media to be an effective leadership tool, leaders must be prepared to be personally open and to share some personal information. The research showed that one advantage of social media is that it allows leaders to show their ‘human’ side and lets their teams get to know them as people. This can really help to create trust if leaders are seen to be honest about their intentions and also about their own uneasiness about the situation. It is often shared anxieties that draw us all together.

The current crisis places a sharp focus on the communications skills of leaders to be able to connect with and motivate a nervous workforce, struggling in an uncertain environment

However, there are two tensions hidden here. The first is between the need to be personally open and transparent in order to create that trust, and the risk of either becoming vulnerable through such exposure or losing credibility. The second is the need to provide not only reassurance and personal contact, but also to manage performance and check on targets and milestones. The challenges are for leaders to protect privacy, welcome intimacy and still maintain productivity at as high a level as possible, whilst using, perhaps, unfamiliar technical skills.

● Secondly, it’s a big plus that leaders can use social media to speak directly not only to their teams, but also beyond them. They can speak to the wider organisation offering ideas, opinions and the sense of direction that is so needed in such ambiguous and uncertain times. The big ‘but’ is that they must not be seen to be self - serving or egotistical as they do this – that would be counterproductive and, again, destroy trust. The dilemma is how to get the balance just right between having opinions and being opinionated. One way leaders can manage this dilemma is to be sure that they know their audience well. This means knowing what’s important to them, knowing what language to use with them and, as far as possible, tailoring communications to meet the needs of their listeners. This takes time, but is essential if messages are to ‘land’ and be heard,

● Thirdly, leaders must be careful to ensure consistency between their online and offline ‘identities,’ as trust is also at risk if there is any discrepancy between them. We know that there are still dangers associated with the indestructible nature of information posted on social media and with the lack of checks and balances. It is often impossible to control the development of a message, for example, when it goes viral, or to correct malicious misinterpretation. So a leader must be sure of his or her personal values and how they translate into leadership practices. This is really a question of authenticity and integrity, which is best fostered through self - awareness and reflection, a key part of leadership development.

● Fourthly, and finally, the availability of increased digital information, not only about leaders, but also about their followers, also raises issues of leadership responsibilities, accountabilities and ethics. This may be one of the most significant implications of social media for leadership in the future. Social media creates and offers an unimaginable amount of personal information about users and leaders must manage this in a way that both helps their organisations to survive, but also protects their people. Now is very much the time to remember that being a leader is both a privilege and a responsibility, as almost the whole workforce feels anxious, and fearful of the future.

The navigation of these tensions lies is in the way communications between leaders and followers are managed. If social media is simply used as a megaphone, it loses power and credibility. However, if used to listen, understand, and respond appropriately, it affords leaders a significant competitive advantage. Social media offers a unique opportunity for leaders to communicate in a way that is personal, interactive, collaborative and intentional and used skilfully, many of the tensions we have discussed become less painful.

We know that the pitfalls, challenges and dilemmas at both a personal and corporate level can lead to caution on the part of some leaders (and some organisations) about using social media. In the main, however, it seems that its use offers important opportunities for a leader to be ‘in the moment’ with those around them, to increase the levels of trust, engagement and authenticity, and create a stronger sense of belonging and direction, which is what many followers need from their leaders in these difficult and unchartered times.

The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly result in many more changes over the weeks and months to come. But beyond addressing issues of safety and business continuity, corporate leaders can benefit from taking the opportunity of developing their social media skills to improve communications, listen to their people and work together with them to navigate a way through the difficult times ahead.

Patricia Hind, is professor of management development at Hult Ashridge Executive Education

Published 29 April 2020

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