For the longest time, school leaders have been advised to avoid being Facebook friends with employees.
“You don’t want to get too close to your staff,” veteran leaders warned.
For most of my professional life, I followed this advice. When employees sent friend requests, I ignored their advances. Careful not to hurt feelings, I never deleted requests ... I simply let them sit idle until I left the district. Only after leaving would I accept the dozens of pending friend requests.
But when I became a superintendent, I used a different strategy. Rather than disregard the invitations, I began accepting friend requests from employees. “Let’s see how this goes…” I thought upon accepting my first friend request from a current employee.
At first, only a few staff members reached out. But when others noticed I was accepting friend requests, the floodgates opened. Several years later, and I was Facebook friends with hundreds of current staff.
Whereas I was initially hesitant to change my philosophy, I now believe accepting employee friend requests – and engaging with those individuals online – is my best “secret weapon” for building workplace relationships.
Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel said, “Always take the time to acknowledge people. If you show interest in them, they will be interested in you.”
For bosses who are looking to acknowledge and show interest in employees, few places are more efficient than social media. While in-person conversations still rule for building meaningful relationships, leaders cannot underestimate the power of social networking.
Social media – Facebook in particular - is where staff share what is most important in their lives. Whether they post pictures of a new grandchild, a wedding engagement, or a family vacation, when something important happens in their lives, staff spread the news on social media.
When you have hundreds of employees - like many school leaders do - it can be hard to keep tabs on the latest news. And while leaders don't need to know everything that goes on, Facebook provides quick snapshots of employee milestone moments.
What is particularly advantageous about Facebook friendships is that leaders have two distinct opportunities to make employees feel special. The first opportunity is when the leader initially scrolls through their feed and notices an employee post. When a leader “likes” the post and leaves a positive comment, this reinforces a people-first leadership approach.
"Wow, my boss commented on my post," employees think upon receiving notification. "That really means a lot!"
The second opportunity to make the employee feel special happens later when the leader crosses paths with the individual at work. Rather than engage in classic "Good morning!" or "How are you?" small talk, the boss can focus attention on the employee by saying "Your new puppy is so cute!" or "How did your 5k race go?"
Another powerful aspect of Facebook friendships is that they help to eliminate traditional school “hierarchies.” In many school settings, support staff feel overlooked and under-appreciated. Some school leaders don't even know the names of these employees!
School leaders who engage with support staff on social media do wonders to build relationships with these individuals. In a time when quality paraeducators, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, and food service personnel are hard to find, leaders should view Facebook as an opportunity to show interest in those employees while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that they stick around.
“But I don’t do social media,” some readers may be thinking. “It’s a waste of time.”
I totally get it. Studies have found a strong link between heavy social media use and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the addictive nature of social media drains precious brainpower and robs us of time that could be spent on productive activities.
However, school leaders must understand current reality. Not only do 81 percent of American adults have Facebook accounts, 97 percent of college graduates use social media. And while platforms change with time, social media shows no signs of slowing down.
The point is, Facebook is where employees congregate. While not all school leaders are fans of social media, most school employees are. And when school leaders say they “don’t do Facebook,” they willingly forego valuable opportunities to positively engage with staff.
On the other hand, leaders who are open to social media realize that online friendships aren't all that complicated. When they carefully navigate potential social media landmines, leaders discover that Facebook provides untapped leverage for building relationships and enhancing workplace culture.
Thinking about taking this advice and accepting employee friend requests? Here are seven tips to remember:
Be Careful: It goes without saying that school leaders must be cautious about what they post. Social media blunders are one of the quickest ways for school leaders to get into trouble. In today’s society, far more leaders are fired as a result of careless social media posts than they are low test scores.
Don’t Play Favorites: Leaders must remember that some employees will attempt to read between the lines and dissect certain communications. Therefore, school leaders must remain relatively consistent in how they interact with employees. You certainly don’t want to give off the impression that you favor certain staff.
One Way Street: While some may disagree, I am not a huge fan of bosses initiating friend requests. Not every employee wants to be chummy with their boss, and that perfectly fine. Rather than put employees in an awkward situation, bosses should sit back and let staff members initiate friend requests.
Time Commitment: Adopting this professional practice shouldn't take much time. Most school leaders are already on Facebook, and dropping a like or leaving a comment on an employee’s page takes only a few seconds. Five to ten minutes every couple of days is all that is needed for this practice to be impactful.
Return the Favor: School leaders who engage with employees on social media often notice that those individuals will reciprocate the support. Not only does it feel good when staff like your personal posts, school leaders typically find that employees with whom they have strong online relationships come to their defense when community members question school-related decisions.
Public Culture: Given that Facebook comments are visible to the public, leaders should treat each post as an opportunity to positively impact the broader school community. Leaders who are genuinely thoughtful, enthusiastic, and caring create an online presence that is infectious to others.
Managerial myth says that school leaders shouldn't become Facebook friends with employees.
Assuming you are professional on Facebook and are willing to invite others into your “personal” online space, it’s time to set this myth aside.
School leaders who go from blocking invites to accepting requests can take relationship building to a whole new level.
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