I recently read a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic, titled “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.”
Within the article, the author details how the rise and evolution of social media has contributed to the division, the rhetoric and confrontational atmosphere of our society today.
I don’t want to directly endorse any of the ideas within, but I do think it is an interesting read and one to which we should give much thought.
Like any innovation or invention, good or bad isn’t inherent in social media, it stems from how it is used. Since Barry-Wehmiller is a global company, social media as a means to connect our teams throughout the world is a very good thing.
Also, through social media, we are able to deliver our message of Truly Human Leadership far and wide, to corners of the earth that would otherwise never hear of Bob Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller. Social media may be why you are reading this very post!
But I’m not writing to debate the virtue of social media platforms or technology. As I read The Atlantic article, it made me reflect on one thing: in our pursuit to become so connected as a society, we have actually fostered a disconnect unlike anything in modern times.
It also made me wonder if there is a deeper part of this equation. Because of the many statistics we’ve seen and the many things I’ve spoken and written about, could poor leadership in our workplaces be in some way responsible? Could it be that a lack of fulfillment in everyday life – driven by jobs where workers are seen as functions or objects and not as people – cause a disconnection with the world so a person looks instead to a virtual life to find the validation they are missing?
Can we leaders be a healing force that repairs some of the disconnect in our society instead of one that fosters the divide?
Let me explain my train of thought.
Reaching for junk food
A recent episode of our Coffee Conversations video series – which entertainingly presents the principles of our communications skills class – talks about how the first step in the communication cycle is “seeking to connect.” That step is so important but is often and easily overlooked. People simply take for granted that the purpose for initiating communication is to connect with another person.
But maybe the people in our lives miss the signaling behaviors of communication. Our boss doesn’t listen to our suggestions. Our co-workers are more interested in their own career path than helping others. We feel like an object in our organization, used for a particular function, but not treated like a person.
Connections are not made. Social media has made it easy to get the hit of dopamine we need to feel better about ourselves, but we still lack the real connection and validation we need. We keep reaching for junk food, when all it is doing is making us feel bad, even when we feel full.
Here’s a line from The Atlantic article that made me think about what the result of this lack of connection and validation could be:
“But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations… they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.”
It also reminds me of some of the things my friend Simon Sinek has said about the millennial generation, which really applies to many people and generations:
“We know that engagement with social media and our cell phones release a chemical called dopamine. That’s why when you get a text – it feels good. In a 2012 study, Harvard research scientists reported that talking about oneself through social media activates a pleasure sensation in the brain usually associated with food, money and sex. It’s why we count the likes, it’s why we go back ten times to see if the interaction is growing, and if our Instagram is slowing we wonder if we have done something wrong, or if people don’t like us anymore… We know when you get the attention it feels good, you get a hit of dopamine which feels good which is why we keep going back to it. Dopamine is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, when we drink and when we gamble. In other words, it’s highly, highly addictive…
These things balanced, are not bad. Alcohol is not bad, too much alcohol is bad. Gambling is fun, too much gambling is dangerous. There is nothing wrong with social media and cellphones, it’s the imbalance.
If you are sitting at dinner with your friends, and you are texting somebody who is not there – that’s a problem. That’s an addiction. If you are sitting in a meeting with people you are supposed to be listening and speaking to, and you put your phone on the table, that sends a subconscious message to the room “you’re just not that important.” The fact that you can’t put the phone away, that’s because you are addicted.
If you wake up and you check your phone before you say good morning to your girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse, you have an addiction. And like all addictions, in time, it will destroy relationships, it will cost time, it will cost money and it will make your life worse.”
There’s a quote from the Drew Carey Show: “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar.”
For so long, alcohol was portrayed as the solace of those who were demoralized because of lack of fulfillment in their jobs and life. The person gets off work after a long day, goes to the bar. How many TV shows or movies have used this conceit?
But instead of a bottle, is that lack of fulfillment driving people to take solace in social media? An activity more acceptable, but perhaps as destructive as alcohol when not done in moderation?
From the Harvard Business Review:
“A study of 3,122 Swedish male employees found that those who work for toxic bosses were 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or other life-threatening cardiac condition. Other studies in American workplaces show that people with toxic bosses are more susceptible to chronic stress, depression, and anxiety, all of which increase the risk of a lowered immune system, colds, strokes, and even heart attacks. Some studies show that it may take up to 22 months to recover physically and emotionally from a toxic boss.”
When people spend their time at work for 40 hours or more a week, they are dedicating a significant part of their lives to their leaders. How can we not recognize the impact, good and bad, that leaders in businesses and organizations have on the lives in their spans of care?
Every one of us, no matter what our job or where we live, simply want to know that who we are and what we do matters. If we do not feel like we matter, if we do not feel cared for, we’re going to respond accordingly. We may fall into depression. We may lash out in anger. We may seek artificial connections. We may act out in whatever way we think might give us the validation we need, no matter how disruptive or destructive.
As leaders in business, we have the awesome responsibility to let people know that they do matter. To provide work that is fulfilling and authentic relationships built on trust and respect. We have a responsibility to recognize the inherent dignity in our people and honor that, not break it.
Our leadership can break people down, but it can also build people up.
Of course, one of the most important things we need to do is listen. When we recognize the signaling behaviors of another person, who is seeking to connect, we can respond by listening. True empathetic listening, where one actually hears the other person’s words and feelings. A listening that builds empathy as it allows us to see things from others' perspectives. It is the key to all meaningful relationships as it shows that you respect and care for the person you are hearing.
And we can demonstrate and teach better listening within the time we have with the people we lead.
I have seen firsthand how the course we teach on empathetic listening within Barry-Wehmiller has had a profoundly positive impact both inside our company and on our team members’ personal lives. This is why we teach listening internally, not just because it is good for our business, but because it’s good for our people. The course has proven so powerful that we offer it to communities and outside organizations through the non-profit my wife Cynthia and I founded, the Chapman Foundation for Caring Communities, and through Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, our leadership consulting firm.
Regardless of the effect social media has had on our culture, we have a problem. It didn’t just materialize with the advent of the internet and it didn’t just become an issue in the last few years. It’s been a slow-moving train. You can read my book or look through many of the posts on this blog and see that I’ve written things very similar to this time and again. And I keep writing about it and talking about it because it is so important.
The way we lead impacts the way people live.
When I read an article like the one in The Atlantic that provides some context for the brokenness of today, I think about our responsibilities as leaders in business or other organizations. How can we help? How can we establish healing organizations to mend the disconnections in our society?
We have a powerful force for good right in front of us. We just have to mobilize it. It isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s a very good start.
When so many people go home each night not feeling valued, it is no surprise that we see so much conflict in families, our communities and in the world today. It is no surprise that social media has become a replacement for authentic connection. It is no surprise that we have protests and unrest in cities because people do not feel listened to and feel their dignity is continually under assault.
How much better would people’s lives be if they went home feeling listened to, valued and fulfilled? Would they engage in toxic behaviors toward one another, online or in-person? Would we still have the division and anxiety that exists today? Maybe. But, I bet things would be a lot different.
Toward the end of The Atlantic article it says:
“We cannot expect Congress and the tech companies to save us. We must change ourselves and our communities.”
We must be the change. It’s one thing to lament the state of society. It’s another to take action and be Truly Human Leaders to those within our spans of care and try to start a ripple of caring in an ocean of despair.