Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Does social media change us? Yes – bullying as a case study

Social media is shaping our buying patterns, our opinions and our cultures.  What will this mean to our economies, our world views and our ways of life?  We thought we were already globalized but this, potentially, takes it to another level.

Understanding the dynamics of how we are changed through our interaction in this new media and how we change others through it, is more than an academic interest – in the largest sense it will impact the strategies, and outcomes, of businesses and nations.  How can we use it deliberately, and responsibly, to effect change within projects, within companies and within communities? To effect standards around behaviours? Bullying on LinkedIn is a great case study.

Most of us have become aware of bullying, and cyber bullying, through issues and events affecting children, mostly through schools.  It may seem more of a stretch to consider bullying in LinkedIn given that it is an adult environment, and moreover a social forum for professionals. However, the reality is that bully behaviour is also exhibited by adults and even by professionals. In fact the dimensions around anonymity and distance from those we are communicating with certainly affect the dynamics.

As a result, social media like LinkedIn provide thousands of petri dishes for watching this happen in real time.  Sometimes Leaders emerge who influence standards and direction by their words and deeds.  Other times a culture emerges, a reflection of the combined words and deeds of many.  For organizations considering the pros and cons of social media this is a very important consideration.  Shaping and influencing the emergence of behaviours and standards is a slippery slope.

This post is an exploration of a sliver of one of those dimensions as an effort to begin to understand what it might all mean: how is bullying evolving in professional space like LinkedIn? How do participants respond to it, change its direction or not?  

Last week Phil Lauro posted a very interesting question “Has LinkedIn become a bully pulpit for cyber bullying now?” and got some very interesting answers. Some of the discussion centred on how to deal with bullies and some on whether there is sufficient awareness of bullying in social media.  The discussion really got me thinking. 

What is “in play”?

As for ‘why spend any time thinking about it?’, well, I am concerned about the culture of LI. While I am no means an expert on culture, my amateur observations suggest that behaviours take on critical mass – what is accepted prevails and becomes the dominant. If bullying is ignored, humoured, tolerated and accepted it will become part of the norm – an accepted communication style.  And if others follow it could become a dominant style.  And, in a social forum of ‘peers’ exchanging information this poses several challenges.  Is this behaviour influenced by the responses of others in the forum and how?  These are interesting questions.

First of all, probably the only reason we care about such things is because there is either something to gain or something to lose.  I do believe that at least 2 things are “in play” on LinkedIn:

  1. Individual professional reputations
  2. The quality of dialogue

Both of these are either enlarged or diminished by how we, as communities, react to bullying. 

Because I have found many brilliant new ‘friends’ on LinkedIn, continue to learn so much in the exchanges both online with them and with many new acquaintances I am inclined to be protective of an environment of open and professional sharing and debate. 

What is bullying on LinkedIn?

In an offline communication Phil noted that bullying on LinkedIn is not well defined.  And I have to concur.  Certainly it is difficult to decipher when disagreeing becomes bullying.  If we imagine it as a continuum, there are behaviours that we could probably easily agree are bullying, e.g. attacking a person’s professional credibility or personal attributes.  What about between “I respectfully disagree” and “You’re an idiot”?  There is a lot of gray area.  Perhaps defining that through examples would take the discussion to another level?

  • On LinkedIn, I have not seen bullying in the traditional sense of fear mongering and extortion but certainly “intimidation” and desire for control. As an example, someone who in runs out of articulate debate resorts to slamming a person’s professional intentions, integrity etc.  This becomes very ‘dangerous’ to the ‘target’ – I will not say ‘victim’ because the world is too big and most of us too bright to put too much credence into the rants of an unprofessional person – that is not actually the worst problem – the worst problem is the quantity and quality of people who then opt out of the discussions – hence the impact on LI culture. 
  • Most of us feel compelled to defend our personal integrity.  Here is an example – in a discussion on change management I referred back to our website to share some information there (it is an active part of our company mission to share what we know about CM), I was accused of ‘selling’ by one individual – others came to my defence and the issue was closed.  I have seen this happen in many cases where intent was potentially misunderstood (the written word lacks enough dimensions to communicate fully) and the individual vilified in a rush to judgement. 
  • I have seen another situation where a ‘troll’ lurked in a group looking for opportunity to criticize and accuse others – frustrating and painful to ‘watch’.  Ignoring this individual’s increasingly bad behaviour only encouraged him to fill the space and continue what amounted to “slander”.  Eventually when peer pressure was applied by a few equally forceful individuals – he decided to leave the discussion. 


This really led me to thinking about scale – how relevant is this anyway. I see 3 dimensions:

  1. Frequency – How often does this occur?  Do we want to affect frequency?
  2. Severity (/Desirability) – How much impact does this have? 
  3. Trend – is either frequency or severity is changing?

I see both frequency and severity of bullish behaviour fluctuating, sometimes seeming to increase but impossible to say without metrics. Certainly it seems that in groups where potential symptoms are not nipped in the bud by either the facilitator or members, online or offline, it seems to escalate unless and until addressed.  

I do find bystander behaviour an incredibly strange phenomenon – many promote “ignore it”, “move on”, “tune them out” on LinkedIn when I hope that they would never do this in ‘real life’!  If ignoring another person being bullied in real life is a form of complicity – why is it not complicit in LinkedIn? 

Does the absence of response to bullying foster it?  I think so – it is the group saying ‘that’s okay – we will not challenge that behaviour – unless and until, of course, it is directed at myself’.

One possibility is that we fear becoming the target of the bully.  And we don’t know the group dynamics and standards (which of course is oxygen for the bully) – we don’t know if anyone else will back us up. Another is that we lack the language, the frameworks, the consensus around how to push back such behaviours. 

Are those who stand by aware? Do they have an inkling of what could happen ‘next’? At what point would they be compelled to intervene?

 I am thinking that as long as good people do not stand up to the first signs of bullying then we have not created enough awareness – why? Because bullying is a piece of string that starts small and can unravel and unravel and unravel to the point of, yes this sounds exaggerated and maybe it is, destroying the culture of the community (here, LinkedIn). 

Honest debate requires a level of trust and professional respect – without this foundational framework two things happen:

  1. Smart people – forceful and timid – go elsewhere and we lose the opportunity to learn from them.
  2. Debate is diluted.  Strong opinions are tapered to avoid confrontation with bullies.

And with these go many of the powerful benefits of group discussion.

How to influence bullying in Social Media?

Of course there is really only one way to collaborate on how to brainstorm solutions – pose a question in the medium.  Back in March I posted the following question “Do you have recommendations or resources for fostering constructive discussion?” (obviously emphasis on “constructive” and elaboration in the full question).  You will find the discussion here.

Conclusion – we change the medium AND we are changed by it

This situation is still evolving and will continue to morph responding to every action and reaction that “we” post. 

What role do you play?  Are you a bully? A bystander? A leader in your communities? Are you changing your communities? Are you changed by them?

Very interested to hear what others are thinking.

Post Script

Am I a bully in how I promote my views on bullying?  Well, I hope not.  I do believe that there must be room for passionate AND respectful debate.   What do YOU think?  Post a comment – what I choose to approve will probably test my own ethical positions.

1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

A thought provoking article.

I do believe that it can be more challenging to respond to bullying situations on-line. Several reasons: a) the response you post lives on – this may inhibit writing what one might be willing to say in person b) professional reputations are at stake and some feel better not to speak out than to speak about a situation that is either confrontational or volatile c) responding or trying to redirect the bully may move the focus of their attention from the person they were currently bullying to the person trying to intervene. I believe all singly or jointly, along with others not written here add to individual’s hesitance to intervene.

One intervention I have observed is creating a small support system. Where we ask a trusted colleague to review a post and help support a situation, redirect discussion, et al. Knowing that someone else understands our concerns and is willing to put text on the virtual page increases the chance that a bully will be confronted more directly.

I would recommend to everyone that if you feel something is uncomfortable or unwarranted but you don’t want to reply, stop and ask yourself why. Ask someone you trust their opinion. Work together to determine a potential approach for the better of the group, not just the individuals involved.

Yes, be respectful of differences in opinion but be careful when the line is crossed from professional differences to personal attacks.

Here’s hoping that others out there will continue to come to mine and others in a time of need – virtual or not.

Comment by Faith Fuqua-Purvis

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