Elon Musk certainly has no shortage of self-confidence and is known for his bold leadership lessons and business and personal advice he emphatically shares. Despite the brashness, he's not known for being mean-spirited, so don't think the worst when I tell you that he actually wants his employees to fear something when interacting with him.
He wants them to fear what would happen if they didn't speak up versus what would happen if they did.
That's the kind of culture Musk wants to create, where the messenger isn't shot and that voicing opinions means the work gets better.
Adam Grant, best-selling author and the top-rated professor at Wharton had dinner with Musk and told CNBC of the encounter. Musk relayed a story about an early explosion at Space-X. Musk asked for the top 10 risks to a pending launch and it turned out that the factor causing the explosion was an 11th item, something that was hypothesized but never brought up. Musk used that opportunity to reinforce the kind of culture he was trying to build.
My experience has shown me that this isn't an uncommon request of employees, to not be afraid to speak up (although Musk's twist to be afraid of what could happen if you don't is a unique spin).
But my experience also teaches me that in reality, this is a hard practice to achieve. The words often don't match the pictures--the employee takes leaders up on the offer and speaks their mind but then gets beaten down or reprimanded later for doing so.
Sounds great in theory, but in reality...
I can offer help.
You can foster a culture where people really do speak their minds but it takes adherence to the principles that follow to make it stick.
1. Commend, not condemn the opposing point of view.
This is about not just accepting people who speak up but celebrating them. If you're the leader, it's absolutely critical that you role-model this. Speaking up is psychologically scary enough that it requires vivid demonstration to make it feel OK.
Ray Dalio, the founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, once received the following email from employee Jim Haskel:
"Ray - you deserve a "D-" for your performance today in the meeting ... you did not prepare at all because there is no way you could have and been that disorganized. In the future, I/we would ask you to take some time and prepare and maybe even I should come up and start talking to you to get you warmed up or something but we can't let this happen again. If you in any way think my view is wrong, please ask the others or we can talk about it."
Not only did Dalio not fire Haskel, he shared the note with the entire company, asked his management committee to help him identify if there was a pattern he could learn from, and even shared the email as part of a Ted Talk (which you can watch at the end of this article).
2. Leaders must forcibly check their egos at the door.
Nothing impedes a culture of candor more than when a leader feels like someone is attacking their ego instead of attacking the problem.
I recently had drinks with a talented young mentee who described an all too familiar scene. He was in a meeting with senior management and pushed back on a new product idea because it was a "shiny ball" distracting everyone from fixing a weak core business. It wasn't the first time he'd spoke his mind in such a setting.
He's no longer with that company, having been told he wasn't a good fit.
The kicker? He worked in a division where senior leaders trumpeted the importance of transparency.
If you want a culture of candor, leaders must make it about the work getting better, not someone getting the better of them.
3. First candor, then commitment.
A culture of candor must invite debate, followed quickly by a decision, and then fierce commitment. Debate, decide, commit. People must feel fully empowered to speak up but must also know when to crank it up and execute.
Endlessly re-opening decisions in the spirit of allowing people to be heard may avoid stifling opinion but it stalls progress.
4. Speak up, not uppity.
Oftentimes the problem is not that someone is speaking up but how they speak up. When acidity, impatience, arrogance, or lack of respect creep into the tone of the person who has the floor, it can floor the recipient and put them on the defensive. Thus, the kind of behavior emerges that discourages anyone else hoping to respectfully speak their mind.
So role-model respectful push back and demand it from employees.
Net, this article is my way of speaking up about speaking up. Spread the word.