Leadership in an Era of Context Collapse
Having different identities on social media for different audiences is no longer possible.
The phenomenon of context collapse continues to be a vexing issue for organizations. Defined as “the near impossibility, in a social media era, of intentionally and credibly managing different identities with colleagues, with family, and with friends,” this concept was at the crux of the MIT Sloan Management Review 2021 Future of Leadership report, published in collaboration with Cognizant.
In the 18 months since that research was published, we’ve seen more examples of why context collapse is one of the most fraught aspects of our digital age, at both the individual level and the organizational level.
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One recent example is the complete fracture of the relationship between Levi Strauss & Co. and top executive Jennifer Sey. Until February 2022, Sey was a brand manager for Levi’s and was said to be a strong candidate to serve as its next chief executive. But her staunch advocacy on her personal Twitter account against COVID-19-related school closures and mask mandates for kids put her in the spotlight. She was told by the company that there would not be a path forward for her. She quit.
“Jen went far beyond calling for school reopenings, frequently using her platform to criticize public health guidelines and denounce elected officials and government scientists,” Ancel Martínez, Levi’s director of business and financial communications, said in a statement to MSNBC. “As a top executive, her words and actions effectively undermined the company’s health and safety policies, creating confusion and concern amongst employees.”
Why are we still surprised by the disintegration of the distinction between our personal and workplace personas? “You may have a private identity and a professional identity that you think are separate, and it turns out that from the company’s point of view, they’re not,” said David Kiron, editorial director of research at MIT SMR and a coauthor of the 2021 Future of Leadership report. “We can each have different points of view about where the lines should be. But context collapse says, ‘There are no lines.’”
This is a big deal for executives, Kiron explained. “We talk about the desirability of bringing your whole self to work. But does anyone really want that? And can anyone really avoid it?” As the lines between public and private are getting crushed, traditional norms are toppling around what does, and should, count as private.