LinkedIn has become a forum for boasting and shallow sales funnels, and this isolates those that value professional relationships.

Perhaps ‘Empathibragging’ can help.


I was one of the early adopters of LinkedIn.

In my junior lawyer years, I was one of the whippersnappers telling the senior partners they had to create a profile for themselves to build credibility in the new world. Most of those I spoke to were sceptical that social media could ever be anything more than funny cats on the ‘FaceSpace’. Some were outright insulted at my suggestion that they demean themselves by self-promotion on the internet.

I explained to them that LinkedIn wasn’t about selling, necessarily, but about developing a professional network. The internet enabled an expanded circle of colleagues much broader than ever before. For me, LinkedIn was about staying on top of emerging trends and learning from thought leaders outside my bubble. For the senior partners though, it was something that might distract me from generating more billable hours; something for our IT Team to disable.

Now, it’s impossible to scroll LinkedIn without being smothered in self-promotion and humblebragging. It seems almost everyone is ‘delighted to receive…’ and ‘pleased to be recognised…’. It has become pervasive. The senior partners I referred to have all retired, but their next generation have realised sometimes it’s best to be where the eyeballs are.

But that’s not my bag (baby). And as much as I might have been disappointed when LinkedIn was dismissed as childish in my junior years — I don’t want what it is now, either.

I share Allan Sullivan QC’s sentiment regarding the self-centred rhetoric that contaminates the platform:

… occasionally, there have been inspirational stories of will triumphing over adversity and forgiveness trumping hatred or revenge. But overall this has just become a naked selfish advertising and marketing tool for people with false modesty to say how terrific they are.

I saw Sullivan QC’s post shared among my own network and felt inspired to reach out and thank him for articulating what I have felt for a little while. Though perhaps he goes just a tad too far. I’m not sure it does any good to shame these people. Perhaps if we can unpick what’s sitting behind their humblebragging, we can encourage a culture that facilitates some level of promotion, but leaves space for the connections I’m missing?

False Modesty, Sales, and Empty Connections

I think the false modesty phenomenon Sullivan QC refers to is due to the network having morphed somewhere along the way from a collection of colleagues and professional connections to a marketing channel for salespeople to sell. They don’t call themselves ‘salespeople’, of course. They call themselves ‘Partners’, ‘Directors’, ‘Founders’, or, the very worst, ‘Recruiters’. Rest assured, though, they’re all in sales, so perhaps it’s a bit rich for me to criticise their natural inclination to see LinkedIn as a sales funnel first and a channel for actual connections second. I get that.

And ordinarily I’d say: each to their own.

But the problem is that their approach to ‘connecting’ hurts mine.

When I scroll through my feed to see nothing but people boasting of their own wins, I’m reminded that my utility to these people is limited to how I can facilitate their next conquest. It’s isolating. I don’t feel encouraged to reach out and check in on how things are going, because the message they’re sending is that they’re ‘killing it’ as always.

I don’t feel encouraged to share the professional challenges I’m working through because the brand they’re sending out is that they’re unfamiliar with struggle; they only know prestige and success.

And so, to me, rather than becoming a tool for building connections, LinkedIn has become just another marketplace. It’s a crowded bazaar where the vendors climb over each other to claim only they can sell the kevlar of knowing the answer.

Struggle Over Solutions

But this approach — only sharing the wins — misses the point of professional engagement. Achieving a successful outcome, whether that be an industry award, some new seed round, or a courtroom victory, might be valuable in a transactional sense, but it’s much less important in the context of a longer-term relationship. Because a longer-term relationship will include a series of questions that require a series of answers.

For a longer term relationship, it’s the struggle that has value.

I’m not so much interested in the ‘answer’ you sold to someone else as I am in how you struggled through the problem to find the answer. Because, firstly, it tells me you’re willing to be honest about having struggled — which we all do — and because, secondly, it helps me predict how you might behave when we’re getting through a problem together.

Empathibragging

I don’t expect people to stop humblebragging. I do wonder, though, whether my connections could try to add some valuable context to their chest beating.

For example, the next time you tell me how ‘delighted’ you are to be nominated for some phony industry award, perhaps you could also take the time to explain what some of the really difficult challenges were during your journey. Tell me why those challenges were so difficult for you, and perhaps what helped you overcome them.

Showing empathy in this way might lead to a shared experience between the ‘empathibragger’ and reader, allowing the recipient to derive some benefit from the achievement being boasted about.

You have won an award. I have not won an award. But we’ve both wrestled with similar challenges and now we have an opportunity for connection.

Not designed as a place for hugs and cuddles

I accept the above may not accurately describe everyone’s experience with LinkedIn.

And perhaps I’m being overly fluffy about the whole scene.

Perhaps LinkedIn is indeed intended to be a marketplace just like any other, and I’m silly for expecting anything more.

But I feel like it hasn’t always been this way. I feel there is a need for a professional social network that nurtures professional connections and fosters collegiality. And right now, for me, LinkedIn ‘ain’t it (Chief).

It’s nothing more than a place for shallow ‘connections’ to tell each other how great they are.

The folks looking for something deeper must have moved elsewhere.


I’m grateful to Michael Jones, Nanya, Ross Gordon, Cameron Zargar, David Burt, and Sunil Suri for feedback on earlier drafts.