Despite the Digital Revolution, Business is Still About Relationships

“The best computer is a man, and it’s the only one that can be mass produced by unskilled labor.”   Wernher Von Braun

Anyone notice the proliferation of seminars and workshops on the use of digital technology as a means of enhancing business success? They seem to be everywhere, and happening all the time. Social media in particular has ushered in a “brave new world” in regard to business development. It cannot, however, replace one of the most essential determinants of business success— the ability to build and sustain personal relationships based on trust and respect.

If you are like me, you’ve probably attended innumerable instructional sessions on the use of digital technology as a means of enhancing your business. In all honesty, I’ve actually lost track of how many I’ve been to. I’ve heard plenty about blogs, search engine optimization, cloud computing, Constant Contact, Linkedin, and the like. There is no question that it is crucial to stay abreast of new developments and opportunities.

Technology cannot, however, close deals for you. Sooner or later, you’ve got to be able to meet your prospects face to face, look them in the eye, and be taken seriously as a credible professional.

Digital tech flourishes, people skills deteriorate

We’ve all witnessed the trend in society— more and more people in public places who are so riveted to their “smart phones” that they’re oblivious to the people and events in their immediate proximity. Face to face interaction in general is becoming less and less popular, as people opt for alternatives such as texting, tweeting, and communicating through social networking sites.    

This is not happening without consequences. In case you haven’t noticed, levels of “social intelligence” (the capacity for empathy and relating to people) are at an all time low.  Also note that psychologists who study narcissism, egotism, and other forms of self-centeredness are reporting that these attributes, which are antagonistic to the ability to empathize with others, are at all time highs.

This is very evident in the domain that we call “cyberspace,” where the communication is very often shallow, fragmented, and frequently lacking in civility. In many ways, cyberspace seems to have become a medium for degrading people’s ability to relate to others. People used to communicate by crafting sentences that took the perspective of potential readers into account. These have been replaced by such empty and trite expressions as “yay!” “omg!” and “lol”— cool, but hardly indicative of any kind of well developed social sensitivity.

“People problems” in the tech sector

This may have broader implications than appear at first glance. Recent research strongly suggests that higher degrees of immersion in technology may be negatively correlated with the development of important “people skills.” These are crucial for effectively solving complex business problems, particularly those that require teamwork and collaboration. 

Case in point— technology based business projects have disturbingly high failure rates, with estimates ranging from 60-70 percent. A “failure” is a project that exceeds its budget, is not completed on time, and does not accomplish the ends that it was designed to. Such failures inflate costs, infuriate customers, lose business, and in fact have bankrupted companies.

Many of these troubles with technology projects have been attributed by experts in the field to “people problems”— ineffective leadership on the part of project directors, compounded by poor communication and coordination among individual team members. All too often, team leaders are selected on the basis of their prowess with technology rather than their people skills. Technical expertise is no substitute for the ability to cultivate working relationships. You really need both to succeed.

Technology often encourages antisocial behavior

Digital technology not only does not cultivate “people skills,” it is frequently associated with antisocial behavior. “Cyber bullying,” or administering abuse to others through any number of social media, has become common over the course of the past decade. It’s regarded as a major problem among young people, although it is also frequently practiced among adults. Several states are seriously considering passing legislation that would criminalize the practice.

Linkedin:  A double edged sword

“Linkedin,” a business oriented social networking system, is in itself a work of genius.  By design, it enables people to make themselves known and establish useful business connections. It’s recommended in every seminar or workshop on the use of social media for business development, and its possibilities are quite astounding. Among other things, Linkedin allows users to create groups based on shared interests, and to communicate with compatible others by initiating discussions and conducting dialogs on topics of common concern.  Properly used, it can convey profound advantages.

The problem is, like guns, cars, and other things created by human beings, it frequently gets abused by people whose social sensitivities and common sense are underdeveloped. In far too many cases, the “discussions” initiated by individuals turn out to be nothing more than poorly thought out commercials for some product or service. As such, they often generate no responses, but simply accumulate as clutter on group discussion boards— bad sales pitches typically don’t stimulate lively exchanges.

I do occasionally run across Linkedin discussions that are interesting and informative, but these are fewer and less frequent than I would have expected or hoped. What I’ve really learned is that the levels of self-centeredness and insensitivity are a lot higher than I would have anticipated.

Social media vs. social interaction      

All the furor over social media marketing and technology as the keys to business success overlooks something basic, and (to me, at least) obvious. If you can’t cultivate and build solid social relationships with others outside of the arena of social media, you will always be losing out to your competitors who can. Digital technology cannot and will not make you savvy in the crucial domain of relating to others.

What the real experts tell us

Sales guru Bob Burg, author of The Go Giver, tells us that, “All other things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, people that they know, like, and trust.” Granted, social media may be a means of getting on prospective customers’ “radar.” But without the ability to successfully manage that other medium known as face to face contact, it’s not possible to develop the kinds of relationships that Burg is alluding to.

Social psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice, devotes considerable attention to the study of highly successful salespersons.  He reports that repeated contact with prospective buyers, coupled with personable likeability and consistent application of the “Golden Rule” are all crucial determinants of success in the area of sales.


Developing your social intelligence


Fortunately for all of us, there are ways that we can sharpen up our “social intelligence” and become more effective at building positive relationships with others. Several suggestions for doing so follow:


Be intentional about it: If you read books by experts on leadership, sales, and excellence in business, you’ll find that the most successful people make it an area of continuous improvement in themselves and those who work for them. Authors such as John Maxwell, Steve Covey, Jim Collins, Tom Peters, and others tell us that the efforts we put into it will pay dividends.


Learn to listen: We’ve all been taught about the importance of making ourselves understood, but little emphasis is placed on the art of understanding others. These two are often antagonistic, a truth that does not get addressed in our society. Practice listening to others without thinking about what you’re going to say in response. It takes patience, but you’ll be pleased at the effects it will have in your relationships.


Seek honest feedback from others: Nobody’s perfect— all of us are more self centered that we’d like to admit. Ask those whom you really trust to be honest about with you about that aspect of yourself. Get ready to hear some things you’d rather not, but take it as valuable feedback and put it to some good use.

Take frequent breaks from technology: A lot of people are addicted. Digital technology can have a hypnotic effect, keeping us so focused on it that the rest of the world seems to disappear. In the process, our ability to attend to and relate to people can take a back seat and deteriorate. Create face-to-face time with friends and family members— without your smart phones.

Keep a personal journal: At the end of each day, make one of your last activities reflecting upon how you handled things. Do it in writing. Pay special attention to how you managed your interchanges with others, noting those things you did well and those things you could have done better. Consult it frequently, to note progress or regression.

Using social media intelligently

It’s really easy to get so focused on the possibilities that digital technology makes available to us that we forget that most business is still conducted in three-dimensional space and involves interactions between individuals who entertain feelings and emotional connections. As a trained psychologist who has been on the planet for over 60 years, I don’t have too much trouble staying in touch with that reality. Technology is here to stay, but I’m a firm believer in keeping it in its proper place.

There is no question that the use of social media will grow in its importance as a business development tool as we move further into the 21st Century. We must keep in mind, however, that it is no substitute for the trust, respect, and good human relations. It can certainly be a great source of opportunities, but in business, it cannot “seal the deal.”