Social Media in the Workplace and Neuroscience

As Matthew Lieberman points out in his book ‘Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect’, if Facebook was a religion, it would be the world’s third largest after Christianity and Islam.

No workplace would get very far these days by attempting to ban specific religions and, likewise, organisations must introduce policies that cater for this ‘grip’ that social media has on our lives. After all, it’s here and it’s not going away; ignoring it is not going to work.

In order for organisations to approach social media policies with full understanding, we must look at some of the neuroscience behind it to discover exactly why social media has taken such a leading role in our lives.

The Universal Appeal of Social Media

Certain features of social media platforms make them instantly appealing: they are easy to use, require little or no expertise, they help us connect to our friends, they keep us up to date with latest news and gossip, they keep us visually engaged and entertained with photos and videos, they are free… and so on. You get the picture – most people find it easy to like them.

Of course we have the personal devices and broadband Wi-Fi connections available now too, so that we can be on the social media networks all the time, if we wish.

And some people do wish – that’s the worry for organisations that are counting up the cost of lost productivity.

Director magazine commented in 2011 on a global survey of IT workers which concluded that the spread of social tools ‘designed to increase productivity is actually costing businesses millions of dollars per year in lost productivity.’ It points out that ‘45% of employees work only 15 minutes or less without getting interrupted.’

So why are we so distracted by social media?

The Neuroscience

The workplace often glosses over the fact that we are deeply tribal beings at our core, and this makes social interaction essential to our everyday life.

Social media is therefore addressing a very basic need we have; without this it couldn’t possibly have swept to such popularity within a few years. Yes, the devices and the technology and the smartness of the platforms have all enabled it, but what has driven it is our need to connect with each other.

Lieberman points out in his book how this social intelligence is different our ‘general intelligence’ as evidenced by the involvement of different parts of the brain:

‘The brain regions reliably associated with general intelligence and its related cognitive abilities, like working memory and reasoning, tend to be on the outer (or lateral) surface of the brain, whereas thinking about other people and oneself utilizes mostly medial (or midline) regions of the brain.’

We can argue about the relative merits of communication by texting or photos or smileys, as opposed to face-to-face communication, but the reality is that, while we are arguing, social media is busy getting on with it. It’s not stopping!

Dr. David Rock talks about the special power that social media has on the brain:

‘When your reputation is attacked online you are getting a similar reaction in the brain as physical pain. When someone says something nice about you, the pleasure centre of the brain lights up… it’s a pure drug in a sense because it’s rewarding to the brain.’

Stressing the importance of social contact and social issues to the brain, Rock recognises that, like all drugs, it can lead to addiction, as people become obsessed with ’empty neural calories’ as he calls them – a type of ‘junk food’ for the brain.

The dopamine burst (just like a sugar fix from a soda or a fat fix from a burger) we get from ’empty’ time on social media makes people feel good, but it’s not doing much for the development of the individual, nor for the workplace.

Clearly, as the brain’s level of social interaction increases it becomes less effective in the type of non-social thinking that we must often engage in to do our job efficiently. Lieberman says this:

‘To the extent that the social cognition network stays on when we engage in nonsocial thinking, it tends to interfere with our ability to perform.’

Organisations therefore need to implement policies that balance the two sides of the coin – recognising the need but defining what is excessive – in order to maintain productivity.

Addressing the Needs

Vanessa Robinson, from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK points out that employees’ performance should be ‘determined by outputs, not by their activity’.

The majority of people will use social media as part of their daily working life without it impacting on their performance; and it may even aid performance, as many of the same tools used to connect with friends are used by businesses to connect with customers, remote staff members, hire employees and for training and development.

The best solution is to implement written policies that clearly set out to employees what is and isn’t acceptable use of social media.

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