How to Avoid Horrific Musk-Like Employee Reviews

Elon Musk teaches us what not to do when it comes to managing people. Use these three strategies to ensure your leadership style stays, well, sane.


5 min read

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By now, the world is familiar with Elon Musk and his magic cars. But lately, he’s become notorious for other things — namely, his reportedly unhinged management style.

In a damning article published in Wired, reporter Charles Duhigg details how he spent months documenting Tesla’s inner workings. Former and current employees reported erratic — even scary — behavior from Musk: storming through manufacturing plants and offices, conducting informal “rage firings” and intimidating those he didn’t terminate into quitting anyway. What’s more, Tesla’s higher-ups regularly instructed staff to steer clear of Musk to avoid sudden interrogations, where the wrong answers could lead to on-the-spot firings.

Related: 9 Things Managers Do That Make Good Employees Quit

Most entrepreneurs would do anything to achieve Musk’s insane success, but can such success be attained without his insane leadership habits? Absolutely.

The current workplace climate is changing. Jobvite’s “2018 Job Seeker Nation study” reported that almost a third of new hires surveyed left their jobs within their first 90 days. Scaring employees into leaving even sooner is a company death wish. And let’s not forget the accompanying anxiety of employees who choose to stay. Business leaders such as Musk are arguably revolutionaries, but being innovative clearly doesn’t make up for a grave lack of leadership.

Visionaries must focus on leading their people, not victimizing them. And if you’re one of those visionaries and the majority of your team members are talented, you definitely don’t want to lose them. In fact, as a company leader, a large part of your role is to help them get better.

Good people want good leadership.

Through various internal studies conducted over the years, my company discovered that leaders consider the vast majority — say, 80 to 90 percent — of the people working for them to be inherently good. If you’re dissatisfied with your own business outcomes, the caliber of your people likely isn’t the problem.

Clearly, you need to rethink a few things: How do you create a work environment where people want to get hired? How do you help employees experience successful careers? Consider the ways you can engage with them, such as coaching, mentoring or simply engaging in conversation. When we have great people in our midst, it’s up to us as leaders to help them achieve their potential.

Related: 7 Ways to Keep Your Best Employees

As creatures of habit, most leaders act the way they do because of previous teachings or observations from past mentors and managers. But if you recognize yourself here you must let go of those preconceived methods and embrace new mindsets and strategies. To ensure your leadership style stays present, mindful and accountable — and to avoid those horrific Musk-like employee reviews — consider the following: 

1. Treat people like adults.

It’s easy to forget that you’re working with a team of adults: talented men and women with good heads on their shoulders whom you wouldn’t have hired otherwise. At HPWP, we have one simple policy that fosters a high-performance environment, drafted by adults for adults: “All employees are expected to act in the best interest of the company and their fellow employees.” That’s it. When everyone follows that single rule, restrictive or punitive policies aren’t necessary.

Last year, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, made headlines when she replaced GM’s 10-page draconian dress code policy with a simple directive: “Dress appropriately.” This succinct, common-sense policy honors the intellect and judgment of the adults who work for GM, showing that respect and accountability go both ways.

2. Remember: Punishment does not empower.

Punishing your employees may make them comply with certain rules — for a short time. But expecting warnings, threats or suspensions to create lasting change is counterproductive to your company’s future success. The common practice of “progressive discipline” is outdated and damaging. Implementing a series of escalating punishments — from verbal and written warnings to suspension and finally termination — puts employees on a path to failure.

The practice continues, however, because traditional leadership sees it as a safe option that protects companies in the event of an unemployment claim or lawsuit. It’s also an easy way out for the 37 percent of managers (according to a Harris Poll) who feel uncomfortable having conversations with employees about counterproductive behavior. They’d prefer the less personal approach of issuing sanctioned consequences.

Instead, engage your employees in adult-to-adult coaching conversations and explore the root of problematic behaviors. Get curious about employees’ perspective and restate your expectations. Ask employees to develop solutions to their problems that make them feel empowered to resolve issues independently.

Related: Investing in Your Employees Is the Smartest Business Decision You Can Make

3. Show trust in people (and their potential).

The next time an employee embarks on a task or project, make it clear why you chose him or her (and what you expect). For example, consider saying, “You’ve shown that you pay close attention to details and seek input from others. You also have in-depth knowledge of this particular issue. I look forward to your outstanding results.” This sentiment simultaneously expresses encouragement, trust and high expectations.

And when an employee performs well, make time and space to recognize not only the great work this person has done, but also the effect it’s had on everyone around him or her. This type of positive reinforcement is incredibly effective, and studies show that it’s essential for motivating people to do their best.

With trust, accountability and adult conversations, you can watch your team’s talent — and your leadership — soar to new heights.

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