The Networked Age: How social networking technology enables arguments to escalate that can destroy company reputations

As I write, Microsoft is embroiled in a public controversy that began as an internal argument about the company’s diversity strategy and which quickly found its way onto news media sites ranging from Quartz to Breitbart.

This is the latest in a growing number of acrimonious internal debates that have become reputational flashpoints – from complaints about Slack-bullying between journalists in New York newsrooms to the infamous case of James Damore, an employee who was fired from Google after his memo about diversity strategy (again) caused a furious backlash from some employees and leaked online.

Destructive power of networks

The common thread in all these stories is the role that social networking technology plays in enabling arguments to escalate. In Microsoft’s case, it was its own networking platform, Yammer. For our Parliamentary political parties, it’s usually WhatsApp groups. This is not coincidence. As the Guardian’s Charles Arthur recently observed: “Barely a week goes by without government ministers or MPs warning Facebook, Twitter or Google that they must do more to prevent radical or dangerous ideas being spread.

“Oddly, MPs never wonder whether they might be victims of the same effects of these tools that they, too, use all the time… If you look at the literature around radicalisation, and then at our politics, it’s hard not to think that social media is not helping.”

Gang mentality at work

Our Networked Age research in partnership with UCL’s Affective Brain Lab analysed the literature from hundreds of studies and found that networks encourage tribalism and polarisation by amplifying the effects of group psychology.

When applied to conversations within companies using social technologies, this means that debate will become more emotionally fraught and, ironically, employees will be less willing to listen to one another.

Using networks for good

This is not, however, an argument for sticking stubbornly to emails, intranets and posters. Networks are powerful engines for innovation, enabling collaboration and flexible working. The influence of networks on workplace culture is also unavoidable. WhatsApp groups already connect employees across companies that have yet to hear the names Chanty, Fleep or Glip.

But networking technology comes at a cost greater than the licence fees: Bad ideas can proliferate as quickly as good ones and internal activists can find receptive audiences just as quickly as Greta Thunberg does in the outside world.

Two questions to ask

Companies should ensure that they roll-out networking technologies with their eyes open about the consequences and develop strategies to reinforce positive behaviour. There are two key questions to ask:

Firstly, on social networks, traditional ‘authority figures’, bound by conventional rules of engagement and the need to moderate their words to accommodate complex stakeholder interests, often wield less influence than individuals with emotive arguments. What does this dynamic mean when applied to the relationship between senior leaders and the wider workforce? How do companies ensure that the insurgent spirit of the populist politics fuelled by the Networked Age doesn’t damage internal relationships?

Secondly, studies of networks from Twitter to focus groups have repeatedly shown that when people with a similar worldview debate a topic, a phenomenon called ‘hyperpolarisation’ means that the views of the group coalesce around the most extreme positions and nuance gets lost. Organisations often consist of people with very similar values and perspectives – so how do they avoid damaging groupthink?

The rules of the Networked Age

Today, companies tread warily on Facebook and Twitter, anticipating the possibility of public backlash and using their advertising budgets to apply pressure on the networks to address the unforeseen social consequences that their platforms have produced.

Meanwhile, these same companies are rolling-out social technologies across their businesses without a second thought for the forces they are about to unleash on their corporate culture.

It’s time for leaders to understand the new rules of the Networked Age before it’s too late, because if internal politics turn tribal, then a snarky piece in Quartz is the least of your worries.

Written by Nick Barron, deputy CEO of agency MHP Communications