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by Alex Alusheff, for SIOP


Study suggests online social support may not belong in the workplace

By Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Social support is the feeling that results from positive interactions with friends. With the explosive growth of “online friends”, the question is, do these friends provide positive forms of social support that contribute to feelings of personal satisfaction and efficacy?

As social media changes how people interact personally and professionally, one SIOP member cautions leaders to be careful how they use these tools to foster better workplace relationships.

SIOP member Deborah Olson, an associate professor of management at University of La Verne, first became interested in social networking’s role in the workplace after hearing of an organization’s team building exercise in which employees were instructed to ‘friend’ coworkers on Facebook.

“People enjoy Facebook, but they have strong privacy concerns,” Olson said.

This prompted her to look into the effect social media had on social support inside and outside of the workplace. So she, along with coauthors Ken Shultz and Jeanny Liu surveyed 178 Facebook users and 40 non-Facebook users at a private university in southern California, measuring the types of social support they receive from friends, as well as their interactions, efficacy, and satisfaction. The group presented their research in a poster at the 27th annual SIOP conference in April.

There are three types of social support; emotional, informational and instrumental, Olson explained. While non-Facebook users reported that they received higher levels of each type of support, with emotional being the highest, it was assumed that Facebook users would receive higher informational support due to status updates from friends, she said. However, results were the same as face-to-face interactions.

“Emotional support, by definition, is trust in a relationship,” Olson explained. “While Facebook users reported experiencing feelings related to emotional support, it wasn’t positive – it was negative emotions that were reported.”

Follow up interviews were conducted, and individuals stated that more often than not, negative emotions were stirred through connecting with friends on Facebook. For example, individuals’ questions, such as “why didn’t you invite me to that party?” or “why did I have to find this information out on Facebook?” reflected the emotional reactions of users in follow-up interviews, Olson said. Even though users were experiencing negative emotions, it still encouraged them to continue their use and spend even more time on Facebook in the future, she added.

“People just get this feeling of social embeddedness when they are using Facebook,” Olson explained. “When you’re surrounded by people who are sharing information, you feel a part of something bigger.”

Keeping connected with friends on Facebook also proves to have advantages in terms of informational support. For example, by networking, people can keep track of job openings and promotions of friends, Olson said.

“Social media can be centered on the sharing of information to help people find work,” she said. “Some of the best ‘ins’ are friends that can give you immediate information about job openings.”

Although social networking may have its benefits, it doesn’t mean the benefits of social networks necessarily translate into the workplace, Olson cautioned.

“It would be a difficult task to manage to encourage employees to interact via social media,” she explained. “People like to keep their personal lives personal.”

By encouraging employees to become Facebook friends, managers are tearing down personal boundaries, she said. Coupled with negative emotional support, something could blow up on the team and affect the work environment in a negative way that managers may not be able to easily “fix”.

If managers really want to team-build with social media, Olson suggested using more professional platforms like LinkedIn. Twitter would also be beneficial to get information out quickly. Organizations looking for employee feedback can also emulate the same practices they use for customers, she said.

“Several organizations use Facebook to process complaints,” Olson said. “Employees could give feedback on human resources and other policies.”

Some companies already implement this strategy. Alitalia Airlines in Italy uses their Corporate Facebook account to process consumer and employee concerns and complaints and has a staff who constantly monitor the site, Olson said.

While social media can be a useful tool in the workplace to share information, Olson suggests organizations might want to try a more traditional approach when it comes to team building in order to build relationships and avoid the negative emotional reactions that can result.