I was part of a team made up of people from different departments across the plant. The leader of the team was a supervisor from another department. He took his role very seriously. 

I didn't take my role seriously. Due to the nature of the project I felt I had nothing of value to offer the team -- no insight, no experience, no skills.... I was just there to "represent" my department. 

(Could I have been of some use? Absolutely. But I definitely thought I had better things to do with my time. Yep: I was kind of a jerk.)

At first I showed up to the thrice-weekly meetings on time. I tried to listen politely. I tried not to fidget when discussions droned on and on.

Then I started arriving a little late; I figured I wasn't missing anything because the leader spent the first ten minutes of every meeting awkwardly trying to bond with other people on the team. Then I started pretending I was taking notes while actually getting a little paperwork done.

And then I started having people call me out of the meetings before they were done. Fifteen or twenty minutes in, something like, "Jeff Haden, please come to Line 2," would boom over the plant-wide loudspeaker system... and I would apologize and hurry from the room to take care of a supposed emergency.

And then I would buy a soda for the employee that paged me. 

Sounds pretty tacky, right? Yet according to Elon Musk, I was basically doing the right thing.

Here's what Musk tells his employees to do: "Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren't adding value," he wrote in a recent email to all Tesla employees. "It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time."

Sounds great, right? We've all been in meetings we wanted to leave. We've all been on conference calls we've desperately wanted to escape. (And we've all muted our mics so we could do other things during those conference calls.)

Having permission, from the very top, to just walk out of a meeting if I'm not adding value? I would have loved that.

But some of the other people in those meetings -- especially the people who lead those meetings -- would have hated that.

To the leader of the meeting, people walking out says, "This is boring." Or, "This isn't important." Or, "I have better things to do with my time."

Or, "You're doing a terrible job of leading this team."

Imagine how that feels if you're the leader. Imagine how that feels if you're not the leader but feel invested in the team's outcome.

Walking out of a meeting sounds, like most grand gestures, great in theory but terrible in practice, even if the top dog says it's okay. I should know. I've done it. And I regret it.

Here's a better approach. If you aren't adding value to a team, talk to the team's leader afterwards. Explain what you're thinking. Offer ways you can help that don't require your presence at the meeting. 

Don't diminish the team's importance, or the leader's importance, by walking out in front of everyone -- even if the person ultimately in charge says it's okay.

Would Elon be okay with it if you walked out of one of his meetings? Maybe so... but if he's like any of the people I worked for I doubt it, because whatever his team is doing is critical. 

Which is, of course, how every leader feels -- or should feel -- about his or her team.

So stay classy, San Diego, and address your continued presence on the team or conference call in private.

The people you work with will be glad you did.

And so will you.

Published on: May 1, 2018
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