What Are LinkedIn’s Real Rules of Engagement?

By Nigel Cliffe

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In business, as in our daily lives, there are certain conventions we follow so that we get along with other people. These are the rules of engagement we follow, or etiquette, if you like.

Now, these rules vary according to the occasion, and sometimes they can be a bit tricky because they aren’t readily available in a handy guidebook. They’re just something you get to know.

When it comes to online engagement through LinkedIn, the way the platform works is pretty clear, but getting it right might not be. You could follow the instructions, if there were any, about how to use LinkedIn, but how to behave on LinkedIn is a different matter altogether.

Yes, there’s a profile you can complete, and yes you can ask to connect with others, receive and accept connection requests, post updates and articles, and like and comment on other people’s online offerings.

But this is functional stuff. The real rules of engagement, if you want to make the most of LinkedIn to grow your business, depend on certain codes of behaviour. They are the unwritten rules, if you like.

The Notion of Etiquette

Does the notion of etiquette seem a little quaint and outdated in today’s fast-paced, interconnected world? Some would say so.

It might conjure up ideas about which cutlery you use for which course, or how to address someone with a title, but when it comes down to it, etiquette is about being considerate to others, in a language they understand. Consequently, I think it’s as relevant today as it’s ever been, even if the rules have changed, and will keep changing.

Politeness is an essential quality in business, but it gets overlooked. Because there’s so much emphasis on striving and achieving, on finding leads and prospects and sealing the deal, politeness tends to get downgraded. It tends to be the thing we miss in our desire for instant results.

Further, the clipped nature of online communications means we excuse ourselves for not adding a simple ‘thank you’. Those few characters carry a lot of weight.

However, the reality is that people do business with other people, and good business comes down to relationship-building. And building relationships is not an instant fix. Building trust takes time. Sometimes, lots of it.

So, in business, being nice to others works.

This applies on LinkedIn as much as it does in other forms of communication, including physical, face-to-face networking. In fact, I think it matters more. If I can’t add the weight of my body language and a smile to my communications, it is essential.

LinkedIn is, after all, a social network as well as a business one. Let’s not leave out the ‘social’ bit.


LinkedIn’s combination of social and business is powerful and attractive – the platform has over 600 million members, 260 million of whom log in every month. 40% of these active users are on LinkedIn daily. Many of them are decision-makers in business. Here in the UK, there are over 25 million members on the platform. No other social media platform guarantees you that presence.

Yes, LinkedIn has much to offer in business terms, if you’re prepared to follow the rules of engagement.

Firstly, to make it work for you, you need to have a recognisable presence. Just as if, when you step into a room full of people, you must make an effort to engage socially, so the same applies here.

How will people know who you are? Everyone on LinkedIn has a profile, but is yours doing you justice?

Make sure you’ve got the right photo on your profile. Try smiling, and ensure it’s a portrait shot, not some distant picture of you on holiday somewhere, or holding a pet. Look at the camera – you get one chance to make a first impression – make it the best you can.

Browse LinkedIn and you find a surprising number of members with no photo at all. If you appear anonymous, why would anyone want to connect and engage with you? (Check your settings, you may have a photo uploaded, but not have it turned-on to anyone other than your 1st degree connections)

Your LinkedIn profile must include:

These are the absolute basics if you want to use it to engage with others. I recommend filling all the fields available to you, you never know what nugget of your experience or interests might engage a new connection. Many times, I have started a conversation knowing a person has a particular interest in a topic. It has been a very useful ice-breaker for a potential conversation.

Connecting on LinkedIn

It might at first feel like you’re a kid in a sweetshop. All those people who might be useful connections or potential prospects.

And all you have to do is press your connect button.

Except that they really might not know anything about you, or why you want to connect with them in the first place.

Go back a step. Personalise your connection request. Include a message explaining who you are, and why you want to connect. But keep it brief, you have a limited number of characters to say hello.

Even if it is someone you’ve met, remind them about where and when you met them. This will increase your chances of them accepting your connection request.

Also, remember that the person receiving your request can click their ‘I don’t know this person‘ button. If you generate enough of these responses, LinkedIn may choose to penalise you and restrict your account.

Once someone accepts your request, send them a message welcoming them. Thank them for being a connection. Make it clear you value the connection. Don’t switch on the sales button. A new connection is not your best buddy. You have not earned the right to send them your sales pitch. Nor add them to your email marketing list.

Similarly, when you receive a request or message, respond promptly and politely. This is the start of a relationship. Be nice and steady. Don’t blow it before you’ve even left the blocks.

Making Your Presence Felt

What is the object of posting on LinkedIn? It is a means of developing your personal brand so that you can attract others and engage with them.

Imagine if you were introduced to someone for the first time and straight away, they rolled out a list of their achievements and continued to talk about themselves in a self-serving manner.

You wouldn’t be mightily impressed. In fact, it would put you off them.

Therefore, when you post content on LinkedIn, consider your intended audience and what would be interesting for them to read, or useful to them. Share your knowledge. What have you learned that might be of interest to them? Share your experiences. Tell stories.

Making your presence felt on LinkedIn is not the equivalent of barging into a room and generating as much noise as possible. It is about engagement and making meaningful connections. It’s about nurturing a relationship for a future opportunity.

Show that you’re taking an interest in your audience. When you post something, ask for their opinion and encourage feedback. Be open. Don’t be guilty of asking a question and leaving the room. Stay in the conversation.

Commenting Online

Creating a dialogue online is a powerful means of building relationships, but it can also be something of an obstacle course.

You can comment on other people’s posts on LinkedIn, just as they can comment on yours.

What matters is how you comment.

Avoid being critical or negative. Social media can sometimes invite heated debate that spreads out of control all too easily. Think before you post, because what you post can come back to bite you. Consider other points of view before you post. Be mindful of the type of question you ask. Respect your growing audience.

Check regularly to see if people have commented on your post and always respond to them. Tag them in your reply to ensure they receive a direct notification of your response.

At the end of the day it is all about generating a dialogue with your connections. Building trust.

What to Avoid Doing on LinkedIn

As with any rules, there are things you must not do as well as things you should be doing.

Online, you’re trying to make a good impression. This is different from what happens in person, because in physical encounters, people can read your body language and see your facial expressions.

When you’re using LinkedIn, these subtleties are not visible, so think about what you’re saying, and what tone you say it in. Go the extra mile to be kind. It goes a long way. You never know who else you will be impacting with your communication. Others will also be building a good picture of you.

Don’t be offhand or rude. Generally, as a rule, avoid irony, because not everyone will get it or be in on the joke. Be culturally sensitive. You have a worldwide audience. Respect it.

Don’t take your connections for granted. This is your trusted network. It probably consists of your best friends, your existing clients and your future success.

Selling Directly on LinkedIn?

Don’t. Hitting the sales button will kill your engagement on LinkedIn. Let the selling be done elsewhere, on the phone, by email, in person – and when invited.

Navigating the Rules of Engagement

The LinkedIn combination of social and business can be confusing, and it can be difficult to navigate your way through.

You don’t want to be too stiff and formal, or worse, be too much the salesperson or come across as having a giant ego.

At the same time, it’s not Facebook. No one needs to see you stroking your cat, or in your shorts, tending the barbecue.

Always bear your business objectives in mind. You may find your LinkedIn activity absorbing and pleasurable, but you aren’t doing it purely for fun. Have a purpose and stick to it. Beware of floating around aimlessly. It will do you no favours.

Strike the right balance and be nice to people. They will be your future customers.

When in doubt, try being empathic: how would you wish to be treated by your connections on LinkedIn?

Engage respectfully with others, build your network and grow your business.

LinkedIn is a great place to spend your time but beware of unwritten rules if you want success.

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