In the wake of the 2016 US election season, I did a lot of reflecting about online behavior – for myself and leaders in general.
As I discussed in the article, What Does Your Digital Persona Say About You?, leaders in the virtual age can no longer separate online from in-person behavior. How you appear, what you say, how you say it, and who you engage with online will definitively impact your professional relationships and perhaps your career trajectory whether you like it or not.
Our online persona never sleeps. Manage this well, and the digital-you will be working for you while you sleep, surf, or work on that quarantine garden you started last month. Manage this poorly, and your online behavior will be like water flowing under your professional sandcastle – perpetually eroding and working against your most important professional goals.
As we enter the second half of 2020, we face a hydra of uncertainties, temptations, and stressors. COVID-19, disrupted markets, elections, social unrest, and the political weaponization of absolutely everything necessitate that leaders should have clear, actionable, and disciplined norms for their personal online behavior – particularly on social media.
Here’s a list of suggestions that will help keep you sane and strategic for the rest of 2020 and beyond:
Never post anything in anger – ever. If you were angry while at your office, you wouldn’t climb up onto the roof and start screaming at the street below. Don’t do it online either. I know… people do this all the time online. However, as mom used to say, just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. So, don’t.
Anger, fear, and (for that matter) lust, are the three cheapest ways for advertisers and platform designers to trigger habitual and low-quality engagement. It takes tremendous discipline to not be manipulated into doing things you wouldn't otherwise do.
No doubt, there’s plenty of things to be fearful or angry about today. However, if you need validation, to feel heard, or let off steam, find a safe way to do it with people who know you and not for an audience of strangers.
Your next client or employer will be perusing your online presence at some point in the near future. They don’t need to know how you were feeling during some week in the summer of 2020. Share that with your real friends.
Never post anything that you wouldn’t say in-person. I’ve never encountered anyone who behaves better online than they do in person. There’s a reason for that. You can behave badly or just be nasty online, while being insulated from facing immediate negative consequences. Act like a jerk in person and someone is likely to tell you so. Drop a verbal-bomb online and you can walk away more-or-less unscathed, at least in the immediate sense.
Don’t fall prey to the virtual version of beer-muscles: tough and blustery behind the keyboard, while being a shrinking violet in the real world.
Have the same high standards and courage in all aspects of your life. If a confrontation is necessary, step-up and make it personal, direct, and respectful… not public, oblique, and crude.
No LARPing. Don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Be one person online and off. In this season of our discontent, the virtual world is replete with online Che Guevaras and real-world insurance adjustors. One of the first things I personally do when making a new contact is compare the person I just met in real life to how they portray themselves online.
Deliberate or not-so-subconscious attempts to be multiple people at the same time are a red flag. Almost always, this stems from a lack of maturity, focus, discipline, or self-confidence, that will impact how this person does business and manages relationships in the real world.
It’s challenging enough to get know people with whom you’ll be doing business. It’s near impossible with someone who can’t decide who they want to be.
Don’t post on topics about which you have no real expertise. In the few seconds it takes someone to peruse your profile, make sure that everything they read displays a core talent or area of knowledge. Let crazy uncle Larry post about his ideas for colonizing Mars or thoughts on the latest political scandal.
Pick a lane, own your lane, and seek to be the best driver in that lane. In a world where anyone can share their thoughts on anything, anyone does. Rise above the noise, focus, and stay on message in your actual area of expertise.
The mark of a true expert is that they only speak when they have something important to say that's likely to be helpful to someone. You’ll build more long-term credibility online by focusing on quality communication and letting other people chase their daily dose of low-quality attention by brain-dumping on topics about which they know very little.
Every post and action online should advance a real-world objective or measurable professional goal. Most people, even otherwise successful people, milk online spaces for personal validation from strangers. It’s as addictive as it is a useless expenditure of time and psychic energy.
Some of the most successful online entrepreneurs never read their comments or interact in real-time on their social media platforms.
The reason is that social media is designed to use you and not the other way around. The way to avoid the trap of wasted time and attention is to know precisely how you intend to make each platform work for you. If you do not have a strategic purpose for a particular platform, develop one or don’t bother with it.
Ignore, block, and don’t waste time with online bullies. Truth is… most online bullies are cowards in real life. That’s why they do it online – it’s easier to avoid consequences and they wield influence online in way they likely cannot command in any other space. If part of your work is to inspire debate or engage tough issues, that’s great. You should be willing to engage with thoughtful people who disagree with you and see the world differently. However, you must know exactly what type of people and conversations you are looking for and ignore or block the rest.
Anyone who responds to your ideas with ad hominem attacks, emotion-only reactions, or encourages others to swarm-troll your content – isn’t really interested in your ideas any way. Your time is precious and they’re not worth it.
Every post should be something you’d be proud to show your grandma. This is as much a strategic as a moral suggestion. There has been such a race to the bottom with standards for online behavior, there is simply nothing interesting or attention grabbing about more debased content.
Being snarky and dropping f-bombs doesn’t look edgy. It looks common. It’s also entirely forgettable.
If you want to stand-out in spaces where most people behave like adolescents, be the adult. For instance, some of the most successful new channels on YouTube feature long-form discussions and debates among reasonable people who don't talk over one another or scream at the camera – a content form that networks abandoned long ago in favor of the five-person screaming scrums you see on most cable news stations.
If you have the courage of your convictions and are truly an expert on the topic you are engaging, you shouldn’t need hyperbole or a potty-mouth to make an impact. Truth, conviction, and compelling communication still matter and win in the long run – even in the age of Twitter.
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