"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
On a recent Sunday afternoon, my WhatsApp sprung to life. In a matter of an hour, I received the leaked thoughts and instructions of a senior police officer. This all tinged with a mild tirade and a fair bit of vim. Mischievous former colleagues took delight in passing on these messages. It was all jolly fun with a whiff of a scandal in the air. Except, a more pressing issue is at play here.
WhatsApp is a powerful tool. It’s become the de-facto main means of non-verbal communication across many organisations. This has positive outcomes, and yet, as always, there is a downside. And that downside can be significant. Careers can get ruined, the organisation exposed to ridicule and security compromised. That’s not to mention the whole issue of data privacy.
At first, everyone assumed WhatsApp was a safe means of communication. After all, it’s encrypted. The publicity trumpets military-grade encryption. I’m sure it is. That’s not the point. The technology is superb, it does its job and does it well. The problem is human. People can and do take copies of what people say to share it. With an anodyne conversation or a bit of tittle-tattle, there’s no issue.
But, commanding a unit through WhatsApp is a different matter. I know, I've done it. Within any command exist jealousies, with a fair bit of infighting the norm. Thus a leader takes a terrible risk issuing directives or admonishments through WhatsApp. The possibility of a leak is high. Coupled with that is the habit of saying things online that you’d not speak face-to-face.
The app gives the impression of control, in reality, the opposite is true. Merely issuing a directive or order on WhatsApp is meaningless. There is no direct contact, no opportunity to read the face of the recipient to assess whether they've understood or agree. It's a blunt tool. There is no real-life relationship, no empathetic reading.
Added to that is the possibility of misinterpretation. A face-to-face exchange allows signals to be picked up that folks are uncomfortable. That’s why evolution made us this way. WhatsApp short-circuits that process, with potentially dangerous consequences.
It’s my observation that junior staff get debilitated by their seniors regularly using WhatsApp to issue instructions, guidance and generally interfere. It removes initiative. Juniors become automatons. They await directives from someone who is not at a scene and ill-placed to take charge. In the long-term, staff development suffers. Young supervisors never get the opportunity to command, make mistakes nor learn. For me, WhatsApp plays into the hands of the lacking-confidence micro-manager.
At critical times, the impact can be severe. With many overlapping WhatsApp groups operating, disruption to the chain of command is inevitable. Officers get bypassed, contradictory instructions go out, and misinterpretation leads to confusion. WhatsApp is those circumstances doesn’t help.
As a plotters tool, WhatsApp excels. Any aspiring officer needs to be conscious that things said on WhatsApp are retained for decades. That stuff can come back to bite them. There is no escape for deniability. You are at the mercy of those holding your words.
Managers and leaders need to use WhatsApp with discretion. It's a great tool that can make life a lot easier; it's also a trap. Use this simple rule: would I send that message on a postcard? If the answer is no, then maybe you shouldn’t say it on WhatsApp. Apply that rule, and you won't go much wrong.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.