Why the “Social Employee” is Inevitable

November 25, 2013 - 4 Comments

I’m always astounded by two facts:  first, how few employees feel engaged with their organizations; and second, the number one reason people leave a job is their manager.   Ok, I’m astounded by one more fact:  75% of the companies on the Fortune 500 from 25 years ago aren’t on the list any more.

Said another way, a smaller percentage of managers are inspiring their employees to achieve greatness than those who aren’t – by a long shot.  It’s the tough reality.   That’s what makes The Social Employee by Cheryl Burgess and Mark Burgess such an interesting book to read.  (In open disclosure, my colleague Jeremy Hartman and I were asked to contribute a chapter on Cisco to the book.)

When I read how companies like Southwest Airlines, IBM and DOMO invest in social media to drive their employees to the priorities of the business, a light bulb when off in my head:  there is a galactic difference between alignment and engagement,

  • Alignment is driven by “what” you need to do;
  • Engagement is based more on understanding “why” something is important to do.

Unless you satisfy the “why” you won’t get to the “what” as fast or as effectively.  This is a mindset for managing, and social media technologies were built to help managers practice the art of engagement.  Now I know many managers believe they don’t have the time or skills, or the ROI analysis.  But the “social employee” is inevitable in my opinion for one simple reason:  Your employees are already using text messaging, instant messaging and group chats every time you host a quarterly all-hands or annual kick-off meeting.   Just ask them.

As humans, we are intrinsically curious and innately social.  If a team doesn’t feel like they are hearing from their manager “why” something is important to prioritize, they will go to the next best source – their colleagues.  At Cisco, we encourage employees to leverage text messaging, instant messaging and group chats during major company announcements or events.  We firmly believe (and our metrics concur) that these social technologies foster understanding and confidence around what management is prioritizing with the goal of enabling teams to move faster.

Here are three easy ways to get started with your own “social employee”:

  1. Use polls during your meetings.  Ask your employees to answer questions about your key messages or announcements.  It is an easy and simple (and anonymous) way for you and your team to take advantage of a standard feature of web conference software like WebEx.
  2. Ask for questions via instant messaging.  It’s always hard during meetings to get good and diverse questions, and instant messaging is a way to capture your virtual audience if you aren’t always in the same room together.  Questions are the key to helping employees understand the “why.”
  3. Set up a group chat with your management team and your team.   Even when John Chambers is speaking at Cisco, we always have a group of managers on a group chat ready to answer questions about the topic for audiences.  We put senior management directly on the keyboards to make sure the team can focus questions to the right subject matter expert and keep the conversation as “real” as possible.

Speed of execution is the new currency of differentiation – that’s why CEOs are so interested in collaboration.  The social employee is another arrow in the quiver of managers to keep the team moving in the right direction as fast as possible.  As managers, we’ll be challenged to “own” more of the “why”, but social media is exceptionally effective at sorting out what’s important and what’s not.  You may find yourself answering better and tougher questions, but you’ll be cutting to the heart of the matter faster – and isn’t that the whole point of engagement?

Let me know your ideas in the comments!


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  1. Ron, you asked “isn’t that the whole point of engagement?”

    Perhaps the average American employee doesn’t believe that the tough questions are being answered in an authentic manner, and that’s why the lack of engagement is so systemic. Gallup’s latest study demonstrates the depth of the problem and why technology alone can’t solve this national crisis.

    “The vast majority of U.S. workers, 70%, are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplace and are less likely to be productive.” Here’s the source of that quote http://bit.ly/1a12tPM

    Maybe the 30% that aren’t merely “going through the motions” at their place of work might be able to rise above the institutionalized mediocrity that surrounds them — by applying these collaboration tools — but the odds of success are clearly not in their favor.

    Moreover, any employee that attempts to raise the bar of expectations within their peer group risks the wrath of those who prefer to maintain the status-quo facade — where the organizational apathy is shrouded by overused platitudes that are devoid of any real meaning or substance.

  2. Just as we’re evolving the technology in the world world based on what’s available in the consumer world, it’s important to look at how communication is also evolving — and adapt accordingly. Social brings new paths of getting and sharing information, new arenas for discussion. Leaders have all sorts of opportunity by taking advantage of these new communication pathways — to listen, participate, encourage, and learn. And, huge risk in ignoring them.

  3. Hi Ron

    In the frane work of having a well paid employee be the social voice for a group I feel that is a benefit to an organization. But remember 80% of the jobs in the US pay $33,000 or lower. Those people will never want to be a social employee nor would a company like Walmart, McDonald’s etc want those folks social.

    When a position is a career and well compensated you can easily galvanize an employee to champion your business. But most businesses pay crap to nbe honest. Not Cisco of course. But most. You name the industry. Anything service, retail, etc usually has all the money made at the top and the last thing an employee wants is extra work for no extra pay and you don;t want those folks tweeting for you.

    I mean your parameters and thesis sound great but it isn’t relevant for 80% of the employment in the US. And when I say start number one…pay your employees more….profit share….reward when the company does great…upper management tells me to shush and go away.

    • I would dispute that “those people would never want to be a social employee.” Most of “those people” are social, just not with their employer, and most have very good reason to be distrustful of their managers.