Communications at Tesla: Forget the chain of command

Elon Musk says employees should go above or around their managers if necessary.

Elon Musk is revolutionizing travel, but he might also be upending internal communication.

Inc. ran a story recently parsing an email Musk sent to his Tesla team. Here’s what he wrote:

Subject: Communication Within Tesla

There are two schools of thought about how information should flow within companies. By far the most common way is chain of command, which means that you always flow communication through your manager. The problem with this approach is that, while it serves to enhance the power of the manager, it fails to serve the company.

Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one dept talks to a person in another dept and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other dept who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.

Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens. The point here is not random chitchat, but rather ensuring that we execute ultra-fast and well. We obviously cannot compete with the big car companies in size, so we must do so with intelligence and agility.

One final point is that managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought. How can it possibly help Tesla for depts to erect barriers between themselves or see their success as relative within the company instead of collective? We are all in the same boat. Always view yourself as working for the good of the company and never your dept.


Chain of command be damned?

The notions expressed in this email are controversial, to say the least. By allowing—encouraging, even—workers to sidestep their boss if they have an issue or an idea, Musk makes mincemeat of middle managers, in some eyes, at least. Such a bold strategy could sow communications chaos as well.

Responding on PR Daily’s Facebook page, Gina Kazimir writes:

This … is how it SHOULD be. But, to make it work, there needs to be a clear way to protect the people who do go up the chain, and also to avoid “punishing” those who get skipped over. If the corporate culture can sustain it, doing things this way—effectively and efficiently, rather than deferentially—is an ideal way to become more focused and nimble, and to create true organizational buy-in at all levels to maximize each employee’s talents and contributions, regardless of title. But if the culture does not truly support this, on all levels, it’s a recipe for back-stabbing disaster.

Corey Schultz chimed in:

I think this is a noble intent but a recipe for disaster. You have middle managers in place for a purpose, which is to solve the problems at their level.

Musk, who is known to work up to 90 hours a week, is all about productivity. As he notes in the email, he feels strongly that to keep up with the “big car companies,” Tesla must compensate with “intelligence and agility.” A streamlined approach to internal communication that trades “proper” channels for more efficient avenues could help, but it could backfire.

Jim Ylisela, co-founder of Ragan Consulting Group, writes on Facebook:

I agree with Musk’s intent, but I’ll make a case for the poor, maligned manager.

Managers are the whipping boys of communications, and sometimes they deserve it. Too often, they see any communication beyond their immediate operational needs as more of a burden than a business tool, something forced on them from above and under-appreciated from below.

Being in the middle can truly suck. Managers are key to the so-called “cascade,” a term many communicators now openly deride. Nothing is cascading. Dribbling, maybe, but certainly no torrent, in either direction.

And guess who needs to fix this? Yep. Communicators must help managers translate all that big picture stuff from senior leaders into something coherent and relevant for their people, and make it meaningful enough to be part of a manager’s regular routine. And communicators must help senior leaders hold their managers accountable—in a good way—by demanding that they report back. What are employees worried about? What are their ideas? Is anyone out there getting it?

I’m all for a company culture where people feel comfortable raising a question or offering a good idea regardless of reporting structure. I’d just like to see that structure work [to] make it easier for anyone who uses it.

Compassion, empathy, trust and emotional intelligence

What prevents more workplaces from having an environment of open, egalitarian communication? It requires uncommon levels of trust, empathy and teamwork. As Musk notes, everyone at Tesla is “in the same boat,” but workers often feel pitted against one another. Silos, competition and fear prevent productive dialogue and collaborative problem-solving.

Breaking down departmental walls and improving communication often requires creative thinking. Writing on Facebook, Toby Rosner suggests:

One method of breaking down the communication hierarchy walls without undermining the chain of command, is the appointment of a (truly empowered) ombudsman-type role that fields all such employee suggestions/feedback. This role however MUST be responsive, and must openly credit employees for suggestions that reveal ingenuity, and likewise protect employees that reveal delicate challenges.

Another communication key is becoming better at breaking—and receiving—bad news. Leaders often go to great lengths to avoid communicating when things get bumpy, which would badly conflict with the more direct style that Musk advocates.

How to break bad news to your employees,” a Ragan tip sheet, offers these guidelines to develop a more robust response to adversity:

  • Preparation is essential. Training and rehearsal make the difference.
  • Q&A sessions can make or break morale when you’ve got bad news to share. Learn how to get it right.
  • Explain clearly. Find out why your information dump isn’t playing well in the employee ranks.
  • Learn where to direct employees who are discouraged or even stunned by your bad news. It helps to have internal partners.
  • Find out how to reach the entire organization through video.
  • Pocket that handkerchief. Empathy is appropriate—even necessary—but don’t overdo the expressions of understanding, or you’ll lose their trust.
  • Find out why you should solicit employee suggestions.
  • Make sure crisis response teams include players from internal communications.
  • Discover what can be done to boost engagements—and tap into employee knowhow to solve problems.

Finally, the approach that Musk touts requires leaders with keen emotional intelligence—something for which Musk is known. Consider the language he uses in another email sent to Tesla staff, this time in the wake of news regarding injured factory workers:

No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.

Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better.

I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.

This is what all managers at Tesla should do as a matter of course. At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.

Obviously, not every workplace has an Elon Musk to set the tone, and not every workplace would benefit from a freewheeling communication hyperloop. However, his exhortation to slash red tape and discard stodgy notions of top-down decorum may have merit.

Still, questions remain: Are companies ready for a sea change in the flow of communication? Are gains in efficiency worth the potential fallout? Communicators, leaders and executives will probably have to consider those factors in coming years.

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