Knowledge leader, get personal
“Should we be doing that now? Share those personal messages.” It’s Wednesday morning. A large office in Amsterdam’s Zuidas district. I’m in a meeting with two board members of a professional service firm. We’re talking about employees who post personal messages on their own social media channels. By the way, it’s still about posts in the business sphere. Just not pure professional content, knowledge, or expertise. “I think so,” I say, “In fact, people are more likely to trust you the moment you get more personal.”
Knowledge, free to take away
Today, there are really no professional service firms that don’t share knowledge and expertise online. The consultants at McKinsey do it. Just like the consultants of Big4 firm EY or the more locally operating Berenschot. Law firms are also participating. Dirkzwager was one of the first in the Netherlands to fully commit to sharing their knowledge. All law firms are now doing it. De Brauw, Dentons, LoyensLoeff, all give away their professional views on current affairs for free.
Undoubtedly there was considerable discussion about this a few years ago. “Should we be doing that now? Share that knowledge.” Now it is no longer a question. It’s only logical. Showing that you know a thing or two about something is good for gaining trust. And since everyone googles these days – even when they are in need of professional services – it makes perfect sense to share this knowledge online. Not shielded by a login or paywall.
But is it enough if you only share professional knowledge? If you show what you are good at, without listening to your target audience? If you share factual information without showing anything more of yourself? The answer is “no”. At least, not if you want your target audience to really trust you.
For professional service firms, trust is essential. Only if clients trust them will they be awarded contracts. The knowledge and expertise they offer is not unique. Others offer exactly the same. Often in the same market. Of course, it is important that customers know the company (brand awareness). Just like knowing that the organization can do something that these customers need (reputation). However, if customers do not trust the organization and its employees, they will not award the company a contract.
For this reason, many professional service firms say they want to be a trusted advisor to their customers. The book with the same title was first published in 2001. In Chapter 8 we find the Trust Equation, an equation with which trustworthiness can be determined. The authors immediately warn that it is not a mathematical formula. The Trust Equation is more of a framework that shows which components influence the degree to which we trust each other.
In the numerator of the equation we find Credibility, Reliability and Intimacy. The first has to do with words; believing that what someone says is true. Reliability has to do with actions; believing that someone keeps his word, for example. Intimacy is a bit more complex. Within a business context it may also sound a bit crazy. Intimacy here means that people feel safe and at ease. Essential if you want to get to the heart of the real problem together.
All parts of the numerator are divided by Self-Orientation, or the degree to which someone is focused on themselves. If we are helped by someone who is mainly concerned with himself (= high denominator) then this is at the expense of our confidence. However, if someone is mainly focused on us, then we are much more likely to believe that she has our best interests at heart. The degree of Self-Orientation is lower and the trust higher.
Let’s get personal
“Should we be doing that right now? Share those personal messages.” Yes, we do! The level of subject matter knowledge and expertise is fine within most professional service firms. I also believe that these organizations stick to their agreements. What is more challenging for them is to create a situation in which others feel at ease. It is precisely because they have so much knowledge (and a gigantic and impressive track record) that they generally have a high status.
This high status comes with risks. As former MIT Sloan professor Edgar Schein shows in his book Humble Inquiry. He uses an example from the operating room. The surgeon has a high status, causing an assistant to not easily contradict him. Not even at the moment when the surgeon is about to make a mistake. If the surgeon wants to prevent this, he will have to open up first. According to Schein, this has to happen before the operation. For example during lunch in the hospital canteen. If the surgeon (with the high status) tells something about himself there, he gives the assistant (with the lower status) the opportunity to also tell something about themselves and thus to level with him.
So sharing a personal message online is much more than just showing something of yourself. It is a way of opening up to others. Showing them that you – with all your knowledge and skills and your enormous track record – are also just a human being. Just like the client who wants to be helped, the student who is looking for an internship or the colleague who needs a sparring partner. With a personal message, you show that you are a person to level with and a person to whom someone can confide her real problems.
There is also a downside. Let’s not forget the denominator from the Trust Equation. If you only share posts in which you are focused on yourself, Self-Orientation increases. The trust people have in you will automatically decrease. Show in your messages – both purely business, and more personal – that you have your target audience’s best interests at heart. In general, this means that you serve. Putting yourself in the spotlight by putting others in the spotlight.
And of course, you don’t build trust solely with a few posts on social media. However, it can help you a lot. So dear knowledge leader / critical expert, please be a little more personal. I’m sure it will do you no harm.
Jochem Koole. This article was first published in Dutch on JochemKoole.nl.