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Elon Musk & Twitter: The case study of all case studies

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Elon Musk

Leadership Lessons on what NOT to do: Elon Musk & Twitter

In the few weeks since Elon Musk took over Twitter, many of us have been on the sidelines watching a business school case study unfold that will be taught for decades…and waiting to see what he does next. First, he cut half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees and then promptly realized he needed some of them, asking some to come back. Whoops. 

Elon then issued an ultimatum that remaining employees would need to commit to a “hardcore” Twitter or leave. He said, “This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” continuing that “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.” Employees were given 24 hours to decide. 

Simultaneously, he revoked the company’s policy that allowed employees to work remotely on a permanent basis and required employees to work onsite (never mind that many employees who opted into this remote policy moved out of commuting range to Twitter’s offices). He has since walked back on this edict. He then cut off badge access for everyone, accidentally locking himself out. Whoops again. 

Where do I even begin in breaking down this epic failure in leadership? There is so much wrong here it’s mind-blowing. Here are 7 leadership failures fueling this colossal dumpster fire that we can all learn from:

 

Hardcore isn’t motivating

First, let’s start with the word “hardcore.” More than just a poor choice of words, it reeks of insecure bravado. I can’t think of a more “tech bro” term that would instantly turn people off and alienate them – even actual tech bros. Despite an economy that’s in the process of shifting from an employee to employer market, after a pandemic and the great resignation where people have been exhausted and depleted, looking for improved work-life balance and more meaningful work where they can feel valued, I don’t think most people would be excited to opt into a “hardcore” work environment, or hardcore anything for that matter. Turnarounds and restructurings require hard work, but hard work doesn’t have to mean “hardcore.” It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

 

No inspirational vision

Without an inspiring vision for where Elon plans to take the company (or any vision, for that matter) – and clear communication of said vision – employees are left scratching their heads in confusion around not only what’s happening in the present, but also having no picture painted for them of where the company is ultimately headed, versus being enrolled and motivated to pursue something big and exciting, where they’d want to – or would even consider, for that matter – working long hours or to strive for “exceptional” performance. One employee who opted out, when given the choice last week, tweeted that he left because “I no longer knew

what I was staying for…There was no vison shared with us. No 5-year plan like at Tesla…There were rumors that the new vision might be radically different…And there was no communication from leadership to dispel them or set the vision.” 

 

Impossible and ambiguous standards

Now, let’s address Elon’s seemingly impossible, ambiguous, and highly subjective standard of “exceptional performance.” What does this actually mean? If something is the exception, then it’s not the norm. Does this mean you need to rate as an A+ player to stay on as an employee? Be in the top 10%? Top 2%? If these are the passing grades, then most will fail. That’s not exactly motivating. How will employees’ contributions be evaluated? Are there actual, measurable goals? Do they have a say in creating those goals? Do they have the resources to achieve those goals? All totally unclear. When he says, “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade,” it sounds more like a vague threat where, let’s face it, Elon could fire someone because he doesn’t like the socks they wore that day. 

 

Corporate bullying

While Elon has technically given his remaining employees a choice – a very binary choice – he made them choose under duress with a ridiculously tight deadline. No one likes to be strong-armed or bullied into a decision or to have their livelihood or career toyed with. Bullies are inherently insecure people who pick on others more vulnerable than them to feel stronger or better about themselves. An estimated 1,200 of his remaining employees left as a result of his ultimatum and this number will likely continue to tick up. A good number of those who chose to stay likely did so because they either needed the paycheck or their work visas would be in jeopardy if they opted out. Either way, his bullying behavior invokes a sense of powerlessness or loss of agency or control in the remaining employees. You want people to feel like they want to be there, and not like they have to be there.

 

Impulsive and reckless decision-making

I’m all for being decisive and taking swift action, but not without being informed. There’s value to be had in soliciting the input of those closest to the actual work. Elon’s impulsive and reckless decisions, such as immediately firing the whole accessibility engineering team, its curation team that helps address misleading or false claims, and content moderators who track hate on the platform, have caused real problems. In the days since his takeover and following these firings, I personally noticed the floodgates open, unleashing antisemitic, racist, and vulgar content that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was noticed by advertisers, too, many of whom left as a result, jeopardizing the 90% of company revenues that come from advertising. Mostly, his extreme haste shows a fundamental lack of curiosity and desire to listen, a lack of humility and an abundance of hubris. This combination doesn’t tend to work out well for anyone.

 

Destruction of psychological safety

In firing those who publicly and privately disagreed with him – going as far as tasking his team members with combing through tweets to look for employees who didn’t agree with him – he sent a clear message of “If you disagree with me, you will be fired.” That somehow, disagreement was a personal betrayal or treasonous in some way. Firing people who disagree with you is more than enough to instill a culture of fear, shut people down, and have them not speak up when there’s a real problem – which will, in turn, result in more problems. Guaranteed. Being able to openly dissent and engage in constructive conflict – and engage in collaborative problem solving – are critical elements of high-performing teams. Lack of psychological safety is not only a culture killer, but also is likely to amplify and multiply problems down the road.

 

Un-inclusive and illegal actions

Elon’s actions were not only un-inclusive, but also illegal. His initial firing of half of the company’s workforce violated regulations that require large companies to provide 60 days’ notice. Further, demanding that employees work intensely for long hours is discriminatory to disabled workers, workers with children or other caregiving responsibilities (most likely to be women), etc. 


While Elon Musk’s modus operandi may be to “move fast and break things,” he may very well break the whole company and the limited number of employees he has left. The silver lining here is that Elon Musk has given us multiple leadership lessons to examine and learn from – most notably on what not to do – and there will likely be more to come.

 

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