Lessons from Musk: How to Kill Productivity

Article by , July 17, 2023

You may not follow electric vehicles (EV), be a fan of space travel, or embrace social media. Still, if you didn’t know of Elon Musk before, you probably do now.

Interest in both EV and space travel has benefited from positive strides forward in recent years and an enduring respect for bringing dreams or ideas to life. Meanwhile, social media continues to amplify the impact of good and bad leadership. So even those people who don’t actively “follow” social media platforms, quickly hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly goings-on in business.

Unfortunately for Musk, there’s been a lot more ugly than good lately.

So, what can other leaders learn?

Alternately lauded and maligned, Elon Musk’s leadership style has been analyzed by fellow entrepreneurs, pundits, colleagues, staff, and more. For me, the reports suggest the consistent use of two practices that almost guarantee productivity loss: management by fear and surveillance.

Unless you’re in law enforcement or security, “surveillance” should not be part of the organization’s vernacular. And even then, surveillance should only apply externally, not to your own people.

Moving well beyond Musk, I’ve seen too many articles and posts that talk about monitoring employees’ work, particularly among remote staff. The focus seems to be on reassuring managers that their employees are working even when they can’t see them. They fear: “Out of sight. Out of mind.” Reports of rampant quiet quitting certainly don’t help this perception, even while many recognize that disengagement and checking out aren’t new phenomena.

At best, surveillance is a colossal waste of resources – managers who monitor; employees spending time accounting for their time; technology to track activity; dashboards loaded with metrics that bear no relationship to outcomes.

At worst, constant monitoring fosters a level of detachment that kills productivity.

Surveillance erodes trust and destroys commitment to the work, the mission, and the vision. If you’re lucky, dissatisfied employees will quit quietly. If unlucky, they’ll depart with great fanfare, ensuring all know precisely how leaders behave in your organization. This diminishes brand and can negate years of goodwill. Undoubtedly you’ve heard the maxim: people don’t leave jobs; they quit bosses.

Either result is simply bad business. Recall the surge in public resignations that have dominated social media in recent years. Consider the shift in unionization from manufacturing to service sector jobs. Remember the news stories detailing management failures.

The executives I advise are keenly aware of the significant organizational impact caused by disengaged or burned-out staff. At the same time, they’re grappling with creating the culture and work habits needed to retain talent and achieve their objectives.

Surveillance builds barriers rather than creating an appropriate line of sight and fostering the accountability it purports to address. Add a ferocious management style that raises the personal stakes for even the smallest action or decision and you’ve got the perfect recipe to kill productivity.

Stop surveilling people.

Instead, focus on the outcomes people deliver. Redirect attention from monitoring people’s work to those activities that boost productivity and engagement. Invest time and effort in the things that build trust, develop your people, and recognize the value that’s delivered. Identify the actions you can take to encourage commitment and deliver the outcomes needed to achieve objectives.

Make changes before it’s too late.

Rather than waiting for employees to leave or the proverbial “shit to hit the fan”, get serious and proactive about learning what’s needed to improve. Then, implement the one action with the greatest potential for positive impact for your team.

Surveil outcomes, not people. Or get used to watching your people – and your reputation – walk out the door.

© 2022 Tara J Rethore. All rights reserved.