Last week, an email Elon Musk sent to Tesla employees a few years ago started making the rounds.
In the note, Musk explains his thoughts on how great companies should communicate.
His main points are as follows:
- Companies should avoid forcing employees to follow a “chain of command” to share their ideas. This tends to force many different people to be involved in every conversation—which slows things down significantly.
- Instead, employees should be able to talk to anyone about anything at any time. Musk tells his employees that they can even speak to him about their ideas directly—no matter how many layers of management stand between them.
- Managers should actively work to ensure they don’t create silos that slow communication. Rather, they should create a culture in which all stakeholders care more about the success of the company—instead of the success of their individual departments.
When Musk speaks, people listen—and for good reason. Few could argue the man isn’t a genius.
While we believe there is a lot of wisdom in his message, it’s only fair to highlight what we believe to be the potential downsides of Musk’s advice.
But first, let’s take a look at why the note has been so well-received.
Why you should listen to Musk
Here’s why so many people were quick to lavish Musk with praises:
Agile companies share ideas quickly.
The best organizations are able to move quickly without compromising on quality. In today’s fast-paced digital world, laggard companies may struggle to keep their doors open as their competitors bring products to market faster. By encouraging employees to get their ideas in front of the right people as quickly as they can, chances are the organization as a whole will become more efficient. If you need some ideas on how you can make decisions faster, check out what SpaceX—one of Musk’s other companies—did to streamline its decision-making processes.
When employees talk to folks outside their immediate teams, great things can happen.
Talk to the same people every day and it’s only a matter of time before groupthink stifles at least a few great ideas. Talk to folks outside of your immediate team and you never know where a conversation can lead. This is why so many leading companies are building offices that encourage chance encounters. You never know when a manager might quash a direct report’s idea because they think it’s bad—or simply because they’re too busy to consider it at the time. When employees are encouraged to get their best ideas in front of the people that can turn them into reality, even better ideas can emerge thanks to the benefit of multiple perspectives.
You’ll enjoy better outcomes when everyone works toward the same goal.
If every member of an organization is focusing on what they can do to better themselves, you’ll end up with 27 different people working towards 27 different goals. On the other hand, when every member of a team is aligned, it’s much easier to achieve your objectives.
Why you shouldn’t listen to Musk
Now, for the downsides:
Managers shouldn’t withhold information in the first place.
If your managers are keeping great ideas to themselves for fear of being upstaged, it’s time to hire new managers. It’s that simple. Good managers should already be encouraging their teams to approach anyone they need to talk to with awesome ideas they may have. Otherwise, members of the team might share ideas behind their back—thereby rendering the manager an ineffective leader.
This communication style encourages an Uber-like culture.
When the CEO gives everyone permission to maneuver themselves politically, it’s only a matter of time before folks stop looking out for the company and start looking out for themselves—and themselves alone. It’s not a good look.Just ask Uber.
While the approach might work at a small company, it won’t work at a large one.
Imagine a startup has 10 employees. It’s easy to imagine everyone sharing their ideas with everyone else. Now imagine that startup has scaled rapidly over the last two years—to the point it has 200 employees. If each employee is sharing their thoughts with everyone else, all that’s heard is a cacophony. And what about a company with 1,000 employees? Yikes.
So what’s the right answer?
The best approach is probably somewhere in the middle.
Encourage your employees to share their ideas freely—with everyone. But also stress the importance of working together as cohesive units toward the same objective. Not every company can benefit from Musk’s preferred communications approach for Tesla. But many can. You know your company better than anyone else. Consider the man’s words and do what works best for your specific situation.
Bottom line: Improve your communications style and everyone wins.