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Stop Playing Into LinkedIn’s Toxic Culture

Although the professional networking app has been pitched as the best place to further your career, LinkedIn’s toxic work culture might be burning you out quicker than you realize.

In a world of infinite career paths, LinkedIn has a simple mission: connect working professionals and inspire professional success. Since its launch in 2003, the platform has grown into the world’s largest career network, with 756 million members across 200 countries

What’s so alluring about LinkedIn? Simply put: exposure. The platform allows job seekers to advertise themselves to potential employers and helps companies find the best candidates for open positions. 

After nearly 20 years, LinkedIn is so ingrained in career culture that creating an account is almost a prerequisite to entering the job market. Whether you need a place to showcase your portfolio or are actively applying to jobs, LinkedIn is your go-to destination. According to Jobvite’s 2016 Recruiter Nation Report, 87% of recruiters find LinkedIn to be the most effective media platform for vetting job candidates.

However, LinkedIn has its fair share of drawbacks. While the platform provides valuable career tools, it also functions as a success meter, allowing you to see where you stand professionally, socially and financially amongst your peers. By fostering this hyper self-awareness, LinkedIn may leave you feeling more burned out and inadequate than ever.

Too much room to compare 

It’s no secret that job searching fosters self-comparison. Resume building and cover letter writing force you to analyze your past accomplishments (and failures) to determine how you match up to competition. Most of the time, this comparison is positive; it allows you to assess your odds at landing a position, or it may motivate you to put your best foot forward at work. 

LinkedIn falters in the degree of self-comparison it promotes. Scroll through your LinkedIn feed and you’ll see post after post highlighting your connections’ achievements. Whether someone’s landed a new position or gotten promoted, odds are, you’ll hear about it. In fact, LinkedIn actually prompts you to make a post to your network anytime you update your profile. This makes achievement-sharing a mindless, “why not?” decision. 

This constant inundation of others’ successes can be motivating but also disheartening. In fact, a 2016 study published in Psychological Science found that when you compare your actions to people you believe superior, it can lead you to disengage from those actions completely

For LinkedIn, this could mean putting less effort into a job search or completely detaching yourself from a particular career path after seeing others’ successes in it. There’s a fine line between motivational and dissuasive comparison, and LinkedIn toes the line with its hyper-comparative features. Its competitive intelligence feature will even give you a percentage-based ranking of how your profile measures up to others’. 

Heather Kleider-Offutt, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgia State University, says this experience is best explained by heuristics — the shortcuts the brain uses to make quick decisions and judgment calls. 

“A heuristic helps us form expectations … a stereotype is a heuristic,” Kleider-Offutt tells Her Campus. “It can be based on other experiences you’ve had, things you’ve seen, people you know. So, you look on LinkedIn and you see somebody else and what they have done that’s successful, and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s now my expectation for success, and I don’t match up. I suck.’” 

Success behind a paywall 

While it’s free to make a standard LinkedIn account, the site also offers premium accounts. These accounts come at four different levels: career, business, sales and hiring, and all of them require users to pay a monthly fee. 

Premium accounts include extra features to increase your chances of landing your dream job. The career premium plan, which is specifically geared toward job seekers, gives you access to LinkedIn Learning courses and interview preparation resources. You’re also able to direct message recruiters through InMail messages, which LinkedIn boasts are 2.6 times more effective than regular emails. 

LinkedIn Premium is genuinely effective at increasing your exposure in the job market, but this comes at a price. Plans start at $29.99 a month for the career option and increase from there with each level. This is a substantial amount to ask of anyone, let alone young adults who are pursuing unpaid internships and entry-level positions. This monthly cost also creates a cycle: people who can afford a premium account (often because they are “better off” to begin with) are then given better career prospects through the tools premium offers. 

For many college students, Premium simply doesn’t feel like an option. 

“I’ve never even thought about getting Premium,” says Brooky, 21, a senior at Belmont University. “The idea of paying that kind of money each month when I’m already super broke and trying to cover my rent and tuition feels stupid.” 

When you’re first starting out, basic living expenses must take precedence over advances and upgrades, even if they’ll boost your career.

Hustle culture reigns supreme

Ever heard the phrase “rise and grind”? How about “embrace the struggle”? If so, congratulations; you’ve already gotten a taste of hustle culture. This lingo-turned-lifestyle has grown increasingly popular over the past few years, in large part due to the rise of social media.

Hustle culture preaches that success can come only from overexertion and surpassing expectations to the point of exhaustion. It glamorizes constant busyness and paints downtime as a source of guilt. Simply put, if you’re not doing it all, you’re not doing enough.

On LinkedIn, hustle culture is inescapable. The whole mission of the platform encourages people to promote and brand themselves, and no one wants their brand to be “lazy and unmotivated.” 

Hustle culture may not always be obvious, but it is always pervasive. Perhaps one of your connections posts photos of the new business she’s started alongside her full-time job, while another connection writes about how working 10-hour days got him promoted. Collectively, these stories shape the culture, and it isn’t a healthy one. 

According to Brenda Holley, a business and life design coach in Atlanta, it’s dangerously easy to internalize the notions of these posts. 

“There’s always the push: ‘Look what I did; I worked till I dropped,’” Holley tells Her Campus. “When you hold yourself up to that kind of expectation, you feel like a failure … We have about 16,000 thoughts a day. 80% of them are negative and directed at … guess who? Ourselves. That’s the human brain that we have to contend with.” 

The profile isn’t the person 

As with any online profile, a LinkedIn profile rarely (if ever) completely and accurately represents a person. Some qualities that employers desire, such as communication skills, critical thinking and adaptability, may be readily observable in real-life settings but more difficult to convey online. 

Meanwhile, a bit of embellishing is simply the norm when creating a LinkedIn profile. If you’ve ever found yourself stretching the truth of your accomplishments or adding a few skills you’re less-than-skilled in, you’re not alone. 

In fact, there’s a handy scientific explanation for this. The theory of self-discrepancy states that, when you think about your identity, you’re often toggling between an actual and an idealized version of yourself. Even if you’re perfectly content with your actual self (as you should be!), the idealized self is that pesky devil perched on your shoulder saying, “This is who I could be.” 

LinkedIn is a place for your idealized self to shine — sometimes to the detriment of your actual self. Behind a screen, it’s easy to paint the best version of yourself for all your connections to see. However, this glossing over can leave you feeling worse than ever about your actual self. As your LinkedIn persona becomes more impressive, you may judge your actual self to be increasingly lacking. 

“Honestly, I think no one’s LinkedIn is a perfect reflection of them as a person,” says Jenna, 21, a senior at Denison University. “It’s online … people have complete control and will only showcase what they think makes them more appealing.”

In today’s social media-driven world, LinkedIn is inevitable. No matter your industry, it’s a supremely valuable tool for networking, job searching and showcasing your skills. 

“With LinkedIn and other social media, we need to put some limits on ourselves,” says Holley. “Because people tend to get on these platforms and live in them, but if we live in them, what’s the real world?”

If you’re already stressed from climbing the career ladder, the best thing you can do on LinkedIn is cut yourself some slack. No one is as perfect as their profile makes them out to be. The more you can rethink LinkedIn as a highlight reel rather than a crystal clear reflection, the more content you’ll feel with your own path. 

At its core, LinkedIn is a tool, so treat it as such. Log on to connect with a colleague or update your profile, but don’t dwell on the semantics of posts or scroll through profiles that only make you compare yourself. Recognizing how LinkedIn induces anxiety may be the best way to re-approach how you use it. 

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Experts:

Dr. Heather Kleider-Offutt, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Georgia State University 

Brenda Holley, MCC, Business and Life Design Coach

Studies Referenced:

Feller, Avi and Rogers, Todd. (2016). Discouraged by Peer Excellence: Exposure to Exemplary Peer Performance Causes Quitting. Psychological Science. 

Holyn Thigpen is a writer/producer/pop culture freak from Atlanta. Her work has been featured in Creative Loafing, Bright Lights Film Journal, Drunk Monkeys Literature + Film, and WABE Atlanta. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually reading pop psychology books or googling Nicolas Cage.
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