Is Musk’s style of leadership one to emulate?

Elon Musk

Elon Musk has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. His ongoing tweets including his recent bizarre and inappropriate comments about the British cave diver in Thailand are raising red flags on Wall Street. We have seen that Musk doesn’t like being questioned on Tesla’s financial viability, labelling questions from journalists as “boring” and he has a strong dislike of criticism of any kind. His leadership has been described as “thin-skinned and short-tempered.” It has been reported that at Tesla, some high-level managers resigned or were fired after clashing over Musk’s insistence on doing things his way.

This description of Musk’s management skills got me thinking about a manager I recently encountered during a workplace mediation. Segal Mediation Group were engaged to help resolve on-going tensions between this manager and a highly valued member of his team who was on the verge of leaving the organisation. The mediation process enabled both parties to air their views in a neutral space, allowing us to understand the key issues impacting their ability to work together in a collaborative and productive way to achieve their team results. The team member described his manager as “a really smart guy who has no people management or communication skills”. He expressed frustration at his manager “watching every move” he made, and apparent lack of trust in him to make any of his own decisions. He found this extremely frustrating, demoralising and demotivating given his own extensive experience in the industry and desire to contribute to outcomes for the organisation. What the team member was describing it seemed was the epitome of a micro-manager.

This brings me back to Musk who has described himself as a “nano-manager” which basically means he is a micromanager x 1000. He seemed proud of this description. Rick Weitzman from Claremont Graduate University in his article titled “Admire Elon Musk all you want, but please don’t manage like him”, observes that Musk’s micromanagement style and explicit disregard for his employee’s personal needs consistently results in employee burnout. Wartzman cites a study showing that workers in high-trust environments are 19% more productive than those in low-trust environments and he emphasizes the importance to workers of “having the freedom to take on projects the way they choose to.”

When people’s autonomy in the workplace is sharply reduced, they feel as if they’ve lost control and as a result, their brains react as if they’re being threatened. This is according to Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at Yale and she points out that this lack of autonomy will raise an employee’s level of stress which in turn will often cause them to perform poorly.

What then is the answer to micro-management? It seems that the consensus is that all employees do benefit from some form of direction in their roles and thus the answer is not simply to walk away completely from managing your employees. Former Gucci Group CEO Robert Polet believes the ideal scenario is to offer employees “freedom within the framework.”

It would seem that this, in essence, means that the manager needs to establish a balance between creating clear guidelines so that his team members know exactly what outcomes they are responsible for a while, at the same time, giving them the autonomy to work freely within those guidelines. It may sound like an obvious and common-sense approach, however, some managers, in my experience, find this approach easier said than done. It is, of course, possible to help managers who are struggling with managing their team effectively to achieve this balance and I will talk about this later.

The SMG mediation process highlighted some key aspects of management style that were negatively impacting the team. At the start of the mediation, the manager was surprised to hear how disempowered in his role this employee felt and that he dreaded coming to work each day. This unhappiness in his role was having a knock-on effect on his personal life and he was seriously considering leaving the organisation. He also told his manager that it was extremely difficult to approach him as whenever he had tried to do this in the past, he had been brushed off. The manager, to his credit, took this on board and seemed genuinely shocked at the impact his leadership style was having on his team member.

While he also put forth some issues he had with his team member and some open and honest dialogue took place, the manager ultimately acknowledged that he would need to delegate more and develop a more inclusive style of management to create a cohesive team for the well-being of his team as well as for the benefit of the organisation. Both parties agreed to work on their communication and agreed on an approach which included regular “check-ins” and feedback. The mediation process could really not have gone better. Both parties felt heard with their concerns and needs acknowledged.

As part of any workplace mediation, SMG provides the organisation with practical recommendations to support the development of key capabilities needed to prevent and manage future outbreaks of conflict. In this case, while the manager clearly had the technical expertise needed for the job, it was clear that he and his team would benefit from the development of his people leadership skills and better team communication. The SMG team is currently providing coaching services, agreeing development goals and working with this manager to build self-awareness, strengthen communication skills and give him the confidence to “let go” and empower his team. In addition, we have facilitated team meetings and a 360-feedback loop that measured ongoing impact of the process.