I want to be the first to acknowledge that Elon Musk is in a tough spot. The hard driving (literally) force behind Tesla, who has admitted to his own struggles with work-life balance, is probably exhausted.

This past Friday I'm sure he didn't enjoy releasing a company letter that laid off 7 percent of his workforce while still imploring fellow exhausted employees to keep pushing to save the company.

But I found the way he framed the unfortunate news disconcerting. Here's the key paragraph from the letter:

"There are many companies that can offer a better work-life balance, because they are larger and more mature or in industries that are not so voraciously competitive. Attempting to build affordable clean energy products at scale necessarily requires extreme effort and relentless creativity, but succeeding in our mission is essential to ensure that the future is good, so we must do everything we can to advance the cause."

In bringing up "the cause," Musk is talking about purpose--the profound why. Why do so many Tesla employees work so hard? Why do they spend so much time away from friends and family? For what higher-order reason? When you have purpose you know why what you do matters. In the absence of a clearly defined purpose, the answers to the "Why?" questions elude us and our work can feel meaningless.

As I share in my book, Make It Matter, purpose creates a sense of personal mission to do something worthy. But It's when leaders use purpose as sole motivation to ensure a company's worth that you run into trouble.

When Purpose Is Used Correctly

At its best, purpose helps reframe and reshape the work we do to imbue it with more meaning. The need to define one's purpose in/at work can arise from a slowly gestating, nagging sense of a lack of fulfillment, ultimately leading to much greater happiness.

Purpose can also be of great service in the face of sudden tragedy. After the events of September 11, 2001, the phenomenon of reexamining the role that work plays in one's life, and how it contributes to the definition of self, was widespread. Soon thereafter, news stories appeared about the changes people were making in their work lives because of the terrorist attacks; people were recasting and reshaping their work or switching careers altogether. Teaching applications skyrocketed around the country, increasing by as much as 50 percent. The search for purpose and meaning had suddenly entered the collective conscience.

Purpose is powerful when used properly. 

When Purpose Is Misused

Purpose shapes meaning and is a profound motivator as such. But purpose should not be used as a shield or an excuse to dismiss other things that provide tremendous meaning as well; things like a balanced life or access to a meaningful job to begin with.

I think this is where Musk goes wrong. Purpose, or the mission, cannot blindly take precedence over other basic human needs for a meaningful, happy life. People won't buy into its callous application.

Yes, I understand the principle of sacrifice--nothing truly great was ever accomplished without it. Yes, I understand Tesla is a business, a tough business, an ultra-competitive business and that tough decisions have to be made. I'm not saying I would have made a different decision than laying off 3,150 people. I'm saying I wouldn't have framed it as Musk did.

Purpose can be tremendously motivating when used in an overall portfolio of meaningful work triggers, like access to learning and growth, autonomy, working with a sense of competency and self-esteem, and working in a caring, teamwork-based environment that values the whole self.

The power of purpose falters when it's used as a bludgeon. 

Do I have it wrong? Is "The Cause" the only thing Musk has left to hold onto to take Tesla to the promised land? I'd love to hear your opinion--hit me up on social.

Published on: Jan 23, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.