The following is a perfect example: It’s a copy of a previously unpublished email Musk sent to Tesla employees a few years ago. Sent with the subject line “Communication within Tesla,” it explains the problem with how information is transmitted in most companies, and how things should be different at Tesla.
Here’s the email (which Tesla has verified was sent to all employees):
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.
I’m a huge fan of the message this email communicates, namely:
Communication that is forced to go through the “proper channels” is a recipe for
- killing great ideas; and,
- burying the feedback that a company needs to thrive.
There’s only one problem with Musk’s proposed solution:
It’s extremely difficult to cultivate in the real world.
Why Great Communication Is Hard
All companies say they value transparency and honesty. Most are lying.
Has Musk been able to achieve this type of environment (where communication is free-flowing and departments work together) at Tesla? I have no idea.
However, I worked several years for a nonprofit that did exemplify this way of thinking. It was an extremely mission-driven organization, one in which nearly everyone bought into the philosophy because they saw managers and executives walking the walk. (In fact, it was a personal experience there that inspired my very first column on Inc.) After leaving that organization and consulting for dozens of others, I realized just how rare this type of workplace is.
So, how do you build a culture where a company actually works together, instead of against each other?
Ask yourself the following:
- Do I see the big picture in my organization? Does my team?
- Do I encourage dissenting opinions and viewpoints? Do I reward employees for giving me authentic feedback, even if I don’t agree with it?
- Do I demonstrate empathy, by taking employees’ problems seriously–and actively helping them find solutions?
- Do I promote an environment that encourages growth, even if it means (at times) losing a great employee to another team, another department–or even another company?
Of course, leaders have to set the example. That means looking beyond individual achievements and key performance indicators, which takes courage, insight, and emotional intelligence. It means making yourself available to hear as many voices as possible.
Above all, it means being ready to hear what employees really think…
Because the first step to solving a problem is knowing it’s there in the first place.