Good judgment in the age of social media

  • Article by: PATRICK HIRIGOYEN
  • Updated: March 9, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Today’s managers no longer have the luxury of time.

About the author Patrick Hirigoyen is a public relations and communications consultant based in St. Paul. His e-mail is patrickhirigoyen253@gmail.com.

Check out management-level job descriptions and they’re likely to have common denominators, such as qualifications in a job’s given function and the desired experience in a given industry.

Beyond technical expertise, organizations also identify more subjective qualities such as leadership, management and judgment.

But what exactly is judgment? Management gurus Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis, in “Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls,” analyzed cases involving several CEOs — including General Electric’s Jeff Immelt, Boeing’s Jim McNerney and Procter & Gamble’s A.G. Lafley — and called judgment the “essence of leadership.”

“With good judgment, little else matters,” they wrote. “Without it, nothing else matters.”

Which, perhaps, is why it’s not judgment, but the lack of it, that tends to attract the most attention. Consider three recent examples:

• In December, Justine Sacco, corporate communications director for New York-based IAC, which operates the Daily Beast and other websites, tweeted just before departing on an overseas trip: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she arrived, the tweet had gone viral and she had been fired.

• Also in December, April Todd-Malmlov, the director of MNsure — Minnesota’s state health insurance exchange — resigned after it was disclosed that, during November, in the middle of a rocky rollout of the exchange’s website, she had been on a two-week vacation in Central America. The ill-timed vacation prompted criticism from political allies and opponents alike and she resigned.

• Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, alarmed both employees and investors during an employee conference call to discuss pending job cuts. Listeners heard Armstrong tell a staff member, “You’re fired!” It was later disclosed that the employee, contrary to Armstrong’s instructions, had persisted in photographing Armstrong, prompting the termination. Still, some employees recorded the call and one shared it with a journalist, who picked up on the story and caused it to go viral.

The Armstrong case illustrates what’s different today. In the past, when leaders failed to exercise good judgment, they often had time to correct the situation. Today, in addition to the traditional media reporting, leaders have to factor in social media.

At the AOL meeting, employees had their smartphones on. As little as five years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. Now, employees can turn on their phones, record the event and share it.

Tichy and Bennis note that many of history’s best judgment calls occurred during times of crisis.

Not all leaders, however, always learn the lessons of such poor judgment. Early in February, Armstrong overshadowed news of strong AOL earnings when he said the company would delay contributions to retirement accounts, blaming health care costs and two “distressed babies” of company employees “that we paid $1 million each to make sure those babies were OK in general.”

The wife of an AOL employee said her daughter was one of the “distressed babies.” Now a healthy 16-month-old, the child was born premature and spent three months in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Many at AOL were disgusted by Armstrong’s examples and angry about receiving retirement fund contributions only once a year instead of on payday. Responding to the backlash, Armstrong reversed the retirement fund decision and apologized.

Taking the right precautions

Most hiring managers, rather than risking the hiring of such an executive, can benefit from taking more time to evaluate a candidate for a management job, beyond technical knowledge and capabilities — talking with the candidate’s former colleagues, scanning the candidate’s track record, and asking the candidate how he or she would handle certain types of situations.

A Minnesota Public Radio report the morning after Todd-Malmlov’s resignation noted that she “possessed an almost savant-like ability to recall facts and figures about some of the most obscure insurance regulations.”

A “savant-like ability,” just as a “natural charisma” or versatility in social media might be attractive qualifications. But the opportunity to become more seasoned, learning from more experienced managers, can help develop a leader who is not only technically qualified but one who has earned the confidence of top management.

When the results of a manager’s judgment — or lack of it — can be magnified immediately by social media, that’s more important than ever.

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