In a sign of our changing times, a forthcoming white paper out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school bears the title, “OMG My Boss Just Friended Me.”
The study will add to the small but growing body of academic research into how online relationships between colleagues inform, and are informed by, face-to-face interactions at the office.
Eager to hear the results before they are officially published, I asked professor Nancy Rothbard, who worked on the study with researchers Justin Berg and Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, the obvious question: So? Should you and your boss be friends on Facebook?
The answer, of course, is not simple. Among the team’s findings was that people weren’t just uncomfortable getting friend requests from their bosses; even requests from their subordinates felt awkward. “It was just the asymmetry of hierarchy that made people uncomfortable,” Rothbard said.
When it was the bosses who reached out on Facebook, participants in the study appeared to equate them with their parents. They had the same dilemma over whether to add them as ‘friends’ or not. And they used the same logic to arrive at their ultimate decision.
The boss’s gender plays a role in an employee’s willingness to accept the invitation. In one experiment, Rothbard found that participants were more likely to accept Facebook friend requests from female bosses when the women disclosed more information about themselves online. When male bosses disclosed more information about themselves, however, participants were less likely to want to virtually connect with them.
“It’s the creep factor,” Rothbard says.
Gender, it seems, may not only influence how likely work colleagues are to connect online but also how likely it is that such connections will help their career. A separate study, conducted by marketing firm Russell Herder in October 2011, found that almost a third of men in their sample said that being online friends with their manager helps them do their job at least somewhat more effectively. Only 15 percent of women connected to their supervisor said the same.
Rothbard’s research has also found significant upsides to effectively bridging the divide between life in the office and life on the Internet. In a separate study she is working on, she found that people seen as “integrators” are ultimately viewed as better performers in the workplace. This means that someone who successfully blends their personal online image and their professional in-person image could get a boost on the job.
“There’s basic research in psychology, all around face-to-face, that shows that—provided that the exchange of information is appropriate—the exchange of information leads people to build stronger bonds with each other,” Rothbard said. “If I share more with you, you like me better. And if you share more with me, then I like you better. It’s a cycle.”
But doing that well online is harder than doing it in person. It’s not just a matter of keeping embarrassing photos or hot-button political views off your online profile; there’s another, more systemic challenge, according to Rothbard. We don’t receive the bounty of feedback cues from an online audience that we do face-to-face—the nods, the eye rolls, the glances at the clock—that subtly help us tailor the amount and type of information we choose to share.
Yet as more people come of age on Facebook, the line separating personal and professional relationships is becoming more ambiguous.
In the Russell Herder survey, more than 20 percent of about 1,000 online respondents said they are Facebook friends with their work supervisors, and nearly half of those employees were the ones to initiate the friend request.
Not surprisingly, the survey showed a distinct correlation between comfort levels and age. Seventy-two percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 said they are comfortable being Facebook friends with their bosses, whereas mid-career workers between 35 and 54 tended to think connecting with their bosses on Facebook would be “inappropriate.”
“To me, it’s obvious that social networking will become part of the workplace,” says Dan Schawbel, a 28-year-old personal branding consultant. His company, Millennial Branding, conducted a study in November that found the average young professional is already connected on Facebook to 16 coworkers.
Schawbel joined Facebook in college and has 5,000 Facebook friends—the maximum number the site allows per user (such users are called “whales”)—and considers the site mainly a professional networking tool. “The relationship with work is going to change drastically. Eventually, in 10 years, you’re just gonna be connected to everyone all the time, including your boss.”
Kirsten Dixson, also a personal branding expert, agrees that social media are vital. “Every single professional needs to be on LinkedIn and leveraging it,” she says.
But where Schawbel sees a certain liberation in being connected at all times, Dixson takes a more cautious attitude toward blending professional persona and social-media identity.
“We didn’t grow up with this,” says the 43-year-old, who joined Facebook in 2008. “Many people I work with, senior executives, don’t feel Facebook should be part of their professional mix. …They’re trying to keep that separation of the personal and professional.”
Whether it’s even possible to sustain that separation in the long term is up for debate. In the meantime, Rothbard takes the question of whether there’s an advantage to be friends with your boss on Facebook and asks it another way:
“Does it matter if people feel closer to you? Yes.”
And, she added, “If you’re able to do that and manage it really well, there’s huge upside.”
Lillian Cunningham is the editor of the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Gregory Thomas contributed to this report.
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