When Good Social Networks Go Bad

Not all social network are healthy. What is the impact of unhealthy social networks?

Harold Jarche has a great blog post about trust and social networks entitled, “when trust is lost.” In this post he points to how social networks in China erupted when Doctor Li Wenliang who had identified the corona virus and was reprimanded by the Chinese government for going public about the virus died from the virus. The government had tried to tamp down the news by not sharing information and silencing whistle-blowers.

But once the news of the virus was out and information began to be shared, the world community rallied and seems to be containing the virus’s spread.

Jarche makes he point that trust is vital for social networks to thrive and when it is present, networked learning increases trust.  I agree with Harold on this.

I think the real lynchpin is in the information allowed into the system and the social validity that information can achieve. Unfortunately, we can see a negative version of that being played out here in America. If you can subvert or at least call into doubt information – say, it was Ukraine, not Russia who tampered with US elections – and you have enough of the social network that will repeat this information as being true, you can subvert the network effect that normally would hone down falsehoods to leave the truth standing free.

Social networks honed down the falsehoods China was building to hide the epidemic, but it’s also clear that it was close to succeeding if it weren’t for Doctor Li’s death. Unfortunately, social networks can give credence to falsehoods and erode trust.

Social networks enable knowledge-sharing but don’t guarantee that the knowledge shared is truthful. Healthy social networks with authentic, service-oriented leaders; that welcome dissent and questioning of current knowledge; and are open to change will tend to weed out falsehoods, build trust in the network and its members, and provide knowledge that can be trusted to the point when other networks may test it and revise it.

But there are social networks whose leaders are self-serving; whose members fail to question “known” knowledge – either out of convenience or by coercion; and are resistant to change what they hold to be true. These networks will seldom issue information that is “true” but with propaganda, diffusion, and bluster to cover the fact that they haven’t vetted this information against all other information. They put on a charade of network behavior that seems to generate truth.

Unhealthy social networks aren’t necessarily negative or nefarious. There are plenty of well meaning groups who leaders who prefer to lead from authority, not with authenticity; who’s members cling to the “truths” they know; who reject any dissent from group norms. These groups too generate erroneous “truths”.

Jarche’s model holds well with the assumption of healthy social networks.  What it doesn’t address is when the system has been corrupted and unhealthy social networks begin to change the equation. The challenge is how can we stem the influence of unhealthy social networks – without trampling on their rights to believe what they believe.


Do you think these regulations will change anything? Will they drive greater support for data collection in learning? Motivate more collaboration between the business units and L&D?

Trust and Social Learning

One of the underlying principles you run across when looking through everything being written and said about social learning in the workplace is the role of trust in the success or failure of an organization to learn and grow.

The fundamental pillars of social learning have always been trust and a willingness to share and cooperate. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

Which sources of information do we trust the most and which ones do we actually use the most? – Julian Stodd

If I’m going to trust my data, I need to trust the systems that make it and manage it – Aaron Silvers

That is, helping them build communities and networks where it’s all about trust, empathy and networks. – Helen Blunden

It makes sense.  If we are going to learn from each other we better trust each other.  According to Paul J. Zak in his article The Neuroscience of Trust in the Harvard Business Review,  he points out that while CEO’s understand that lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth, most aren’t sure where to start to increase trust.

In his article, Zak presents research he and his colleagues have done that provides a neuroscience-based framework of strategies that can measurably increase trust within the organization.  His research linked an increase in the brain chemical oxytocin to an increase in trust and trustworthiness. It also increases a person’s empathy, which increases a person’s trustworthiness.

He outlines eight strategies that increase the production of oxytocin and thus trust among people.  I provide thoughts on how these strategies can be implemented through social learning practice.

Recognize Excellence.  Immediate recognition of a goal being met, from peers and the recognition is tangible, unexpected, personal and public are all factors that increase trust. Trust in the honoree and the organization.  SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION: Leaderboards, badging, and managerial support are examples of howtrust this plays out in social learning.

Induce “Challenge Stress”.  A difficult, but achievable task assigned to a team will not only increase oxytocin (and trust) but also adrenocorticotropin, which intensifies focus and strengthens social connections.  SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION:  This has been a staple of instructional design for a long time.  But it also relates to the issue of relevance of learning experiences.

Give People Discretion in How They Do Their Work.  The freedom to solve problems in their own way increases trust.  As does post project debriefs where they share what they did and contribute to future successes.  SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION:  This plays out in crafting self-directed learning opportunities and incorporating reflection into the learning culture.

Enable Job Crafting.  When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most. SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION:  Promoting career-focused learning, Personal Learning Networks and other self-directed practices will enhance trust.

Share Information Broadly.  Zak reports that only 40% of employees feel well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics.  Not knowing the company’s direction or how it is doing leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin.  SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION:  This shows the imperative to tie learning experiences to real business goals.  It also argues for greater leadership involvement in participating and endorsing social learning.

Intentionally Build Relationships. The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old.  Zak deduces that this means trust and sociality are core to being human.  He says that his experiments show that people who intentionally build social ties at work show improved performance.   SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION: Providing opportunities to learn with and from each other strengthens social ties.  In addition, managers who express real concern for their team members’ success and personal well-being outperform others.  This is support for the belief that managers need to be involved in employees’ individual learning and career planning.

Facilitate Whole-Person Growth. High-trust workplaces help employees grow personally and as well as professionally.  SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION:  Encouraging employees to build their learning networks outside of the organization, providing tuition reimbursement for courses that enhance their career goals, providing time to learn about topics that matter to them all would be trust building learning strategies.

Show Vulnerability.  Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things.  This increases oxytocin production.  SOCIAL LEARNING APPLICATION: This supports the ideas of working-out-loud and for leaders to participate in learning experiences.

These eight strategies increase trust throughout an organization.  But what does that mean in real terms, Zak’s research also revealed that when compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives
  • 40% less burnout

For learning professionals, I find these numbers very encouraging.  Any of these are real business objectives that we can impact by successfully implementing social learning.

What do you think?  Do you find this research encouraging?  Or are you skeptical?  Is an increase in the level of trust a legitimate goal for learning experiences?  Please add your thoughts via the comment section below!