What is Social Leadership?

Jun 29, 2015 | Insights, Skills

If you read most any employee engagement survey out there today, you’ll get the same message: Employees are not engaged at the level companies need them to be. A commonly referenced Gallop study found 70% of US employees are not engaged at work. A similar UK study says that only one third of UK workers are engaged. In fact, in 2014, a study by HR Magazine found that UK employees have some of the lowest engagement levels in the world, with only 37% of workers feeling they were encouraged to be innovative.

There is not just one cause for this. One could blame the economy which is forcing many workers to work harder and more hours, increasing stress and decreasing satisfaction. Or you could say that companies are not rewarding their employees well enough. While there are likely many contributing factors, there is a one long-held belief that is backed by data:

People join companies and leave managers.

Most of us, during our careers, have had a wide range of managers: some good, some bad – many somewhere in between. During my time in multinational corporations, I have had managers who empowered me to do great things, inspired me through clear vision, allowed for risk-taking to support innovation. I have had managers who listened, asked questions and coached me in my decision making.

And I have had those who didn’t.

In today’s business climate, norms are changing and all of us are expecting more from our leadership. Top-down, authoritative styles are no longer adequate. As employees and customers, we expect leaders to be more collaborative, more authentic and more engaged.


Technology is one influencer – as users of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, we have grown accustomed to a more dynamic, engaging conversation with those around us. Companies started participating to get an edge over their competitors – but as we move further into the 21st century, this type of conversation is becoming expected. It is no longer the differentiator – it is the norm.

Generational Change:
The so-called millennial generation also contributes – this generation demands a flatter, more agile organization and as this generation joins the workforce in droves, they bring new cultural expectations.

Finally we are a more global workforce. More and more companies are working across international boundaries, using technology to communicate and share. Leaders frequently have remote employees, who they meet face-to-face infrequently. These employees need to stay connected and informed, and a more frequent, conversational style of leaderships supports that culture of connection.

Social Leaders are those who are responding successfully to these changes. They are adopting their style to be more conversational. They don’t have the one-way top-down style so prevalent in the past but instead engage with their employees, their customers, and society in new ways. They are creating a culture of openness and connection in their organizations. They are responding to their customers’ needs. They are engaging with government officials to understand the broader society needs and how their organizations can contribute positively.

Sometimes these changes are leveraging technology – Leaders are using tools like blogs and Yammer and Chatter to talk to their employees, ask questions, share best practices and learn from their organizations. They are tweeting and commenting on posts from their customers. But this is not about being tech-savvy: Social behaviours do not have to be dependent on technology at all. Social leaders walk the hallways at work, getting to know their employees more personally, asking questions and understanding the true sentiment in their organizations. They hold roundtables to get the pulse of their organizations at all levels. They participate in what is often called Reverse Mentoring, where they become a mentee of a millennial employee to learn the behaviours and expectations of this employee base first hand.

There is no doubt that this more collaborative style of leadership brings benefits around innovation, productivity and engagement, but these behaviours don’t always come naturally. Leaders may need coaching and support to develop these skills and to learn to connect in new ways.

As you go about your day today, pay attention to the leaders you encounter. How many of them are being social? How are they demonstrating this? And what is the impact on you?