Remember son, your words travel further than you…

This is the single best piece of advice I have been offered. The best from a long list of the good. Presented to me by my father, when I was still at school.

This was in the 1980s. Long before our written word became the default communication in everyday life. No social media. No email. The days of the telephone as a device intended for speaking, not committing text to the whole world. Your word was in letters, in memoranda, in essays, briefing notes, and reports. Handwritten. Maybe typed. Your words travel further than you – was advice reflecting the care needed in formatting, grammar, clarity, and impressions of professionalism in yourself. Now, it is advice to wear in all of life.

This evening I find myself looking in some wonderment – again – at comments on LinkedIn. Wonderment that my own views must age me, and perhaps define me. At least by the default position I take in communication. It reflects other discussions (mostly verbal) I have had with people seeking my advice. People I have mentored or managed. People I have coached, guided, or just advised via passing remark.

Here is the Linkedin post as to present full content and context. This is what had me a little baffled, tonight. It is written by one of the editors on LinkedIn news.

OMG, my boss follows me on Insta

It’s not uncommon to befriend your colleagues, and many workers follow each other on social media. But what happens when a follow request from the boss lands in your notifications? It turns out, workers are a little more nervous about opening that door into their personal lives, according to a recent study. But it’s “become increasingly unavoidable,” writes Insider’s Sawdah Bhaimiya, who shared these tips on keeping your feed appropriate:

– Know your company’s social media guidelines and culture.

– Consider cleaning up your social media history.

– “Moderate yourself.”

– Keep politics to a minimum.

– Ask yourself if you would say it to someone’s face before posting

Kelli Nguyen editor of LinkedIn News

All comment and advice I think valid and sensible. But for me this is part of wider lessons to learn. Whether on social media or otherwise, always have in mind, your words travel further than you. So now do your images.

Would you say it to someone’s face, is a good question. In the project world when negotiations or critical debates are on email – when temperatures raising and tempers short – I warn people to beware the email bravery. It amounts to the same thing. But also imagine your images or words being shown to your grandmother, or being read at an employment tribunal, or presented as the last thing you said – at your wake. Your words travel further than you, and by extension talk on your behalf when you are not there.

v | b | t

To expand the point, here is the one example I have been using for twenty years. My adaption of the best of advice given to me. In keeping with this blog series, I have found means to frame this example around the three categories of visibility | behaviour | trust

Visibility | b | t

Claire Swire. That is the name I always send people away to look up when I am needing to make this point. This was an unfortunate story from twenty years ago. It went viral as a story. Indeed that was the story. I need say no more. The story is still highly visible and easy to find. It is also debateable as to whether all accounts are true.

v | behaviour | t

The flip side of that same story is the alleged post event behaviours of the parties involved. But also the immediate aftermath and longer lasting impact of impressions social behaviours can leave. True or in jest, the exponential click bait this became was most certainly for real.

v | b | trust

Trust could be considered in many ways here. First, there is contemporary debate as to whether this story is just an early example of fake news. Fact or fiction, it serves to reflect wider issues of trust. Trust between friends breached. Trust in a safe environment misplaced. The trust between employee and employer via vicarious reputations. When name and disrepute can be used in the same sentence, other terms like appropriate conduct or wilful misconduct, may divide whatever trust employee and employer may have otherwise assumed.

The actor in the show

Across all three of these v | b | t metrics, it becomes less relevant whether you have given tickets to an audience, or whether a wider audience have somehow found their own way to your stage. The visibility of your behaviour is increased when freely offered in writing – or any media form you choose to symbolise and express your life – never truer now that our platforms of communication are public and multimodal and one influencer away from being viral. You have no control over where your word goes. The only control is the words that you print, and pictures you post.

The witness or the voyeur

From the other perspective, and still using v | b | t , what behaviours are reflected in trying to connect on social media like Instagram? Consider the trust and closed distance assumed when social lines blur too far. How do you appear to others, when looking? What is your behaviour saying of you? What trust are you naively building in friendships, and what could you be building as different trust, better trust, in its place?

Context is all of course, but maybe – as the boss – your staff deserve some privacy. Maybe so do you. Maybe as the boss you should be thinking of the appropriate boundaries to keep. Maybe let your team have time without you. Give them space to freely talk about you, not to you. Or for a few moments, not have to suffer you at all. And accept the discussion may not always be nice. Maybe come to terms with the occasional role you play as the unifying villain, that gets everyone through. They need a leader not a friend. That’s why it gets lonely at the top. And a little creepy to stare.

This balance is hard to manage. The tyrannical boss vs the weakling boss. Only one is likely to come knocking as a friend. But so too may the master manipulator. Either way, I would prefer to be managing father to son, than as the older brother trying to rein in a sibling, or cousin, or a more intimate one. I am struggling to think why Instagram would serve any appropriate boss to employee need.

Concluding advice

To the employee therefore, be mindful of your visibility. Your words travel further than you

To the over-friendly boss, rethink your behaviour. Your actions may one day speak louder than your words

To both employees and bosses on social media, consider v | b | t. If visibility and behaviours are unfiltered, your trust is misplaced. You take unnecessary risks and leave yourself exposed. The only control you have charge of out here, is self-control. Just as it is in any public space.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: