The stench of Tesla’s culture is getting worse

Ten days ago, I wrote about a month’s-long look into Tesla’s culture and how there seemed to be a disconnect between the company and its people. There had been three emails from Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, to all staff, and all three revealed a culture with little warmth. Further digging (including a review of the website, job postings, interviews, and other articles) revealed a culture with minimal emotional connection between the company and its people. It was no wonder employees spoke negatively and there had been sabotage.

Like all CEOs, Musk sets the culture of the company he leads. On one hand, he and the company show very little emotional connection to their people. However, within a few days of that July 2nd blog, Musk, along with teams from Tesla and other companies he leads, were in the news for trying to help rescue the soccer team trapped in the cave in Thailand.

Musk received harsh criticism saying his help was just a publicity stunt. He responded to critics on Twitter about the sincerity of his team’s effort. I supported Musk’s effort via Twitter and a blog update. It was inspiring to see a company known for innovative technology and transportation working to help the rescue effort.

Also this week, Musk committed to fund water for residents in Flint, Michigan.

Here is a company which shows, at least to outsiders, very little emotional connection to its people. On the other hand, it made a significant effort to help the rescuers in Thailand and has committed to helping people in Flint finally have safe drinking water.

So, which is it? Does Musk and his leadership team care about people or not? Do they care about their own people, that is? My fingers were crossed that the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!”

The answer came in the form of this article on Business Insider today, and it stinks: Some Tesla employees say they were ordered to walk through raw sewage during Model 3 ramp-up

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Four employees were so fearful of causing a production delay by walking around raw sewage on the inside of their plant, that they walked through it instead. They claim they were told to walk through it. Whether the plant managers told the employees to do so or not, it appears the plant managers knew people were walking through raw sewage inside the plant.

The linked article includes Tesla’s claim to care about its people and their denial of the report. Think about it, though. Four people said they walked through raw sewage inside their plant. The article does not say how many times, but it sounds like more than a few.

Any company that is not in the raw sewage business and has employees walking through raw sewage has a leadership problem.

There is so much pressure to meet production demands that employees are walking through raw sewage, and management knows. A company that cares about its people would not have a culture where managers believe walking through raw sewage is acceptable.

What are Tesla’s values? Without clear values to guide decisions and priorities, individual management relies on their own. The result is disconnection between company and people, as seen with Tesla. Additional outcomes when values are not the clear guides for decisions and priorities include sabotage (which Tesla also has experienced this year), turnover, secrets, lies, silos, poor performance, and competitive takeovers.

Tesla is going to be able to rest on its laurels as an innovative employer for only so long before the stench of its culture ruins it for good.

Have you been inside a restaurant or sports bar or home that allows smoking? After you leave the place, your clothes reek of the scent of smoke. I’ve strewn clothes on chairs on the back porch rather than put them in the closet hamper with the rest of the dirty clothes. Have you ever done the same? The stench stays on the clothes for a long time.

The stench of a culture that allows people to walk through raw sewage sticks around a long time.

Without culture correction and oversight, Tesla will lose the best thing it has: its smart, innovative, hardworking people. Obviously, investors, another stakeholder of concern, can make money without doing so on the backs of people walking through raw sewage.

Tesla might not have clear values, but a lot of people do, and they care who they work for, buy from, sell to, partner with, and invest in. They will find other places rather than have the stench of such a culture follow them.

I am rooting for Tesla to fix its culture so it can accomplish its mission with integrity. Right now, though, Tesla’s culture not only lacks warmth, as referred to earlier this month, it stinks!

A peek behind the curtain of Tesla’s culture reveals it’s missing one key ingredient: warmth

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has given a glimpse into the company’s culture via several all-staff emails he has sent in the last three weeks (dates are links to articles):

  • June 12, 2018: Musk informed staff of an immediate reorg which would result in 9% of non-production staff losing their jobs.
  • June 18, 2018: Musk advised about an employee who conducted “extensive and damaging sabotage to our operations.”
  • July 1, 2018: Musk celebrated a production milestone of building 5,000 cars last week, the last week of its quarter.

The first email was shared on Business Insider in an article called, Ex-Tesla employees reveal the cryptic ways they learned they were getting laid off. “Cryptic”? An interesting word choice, which prompted further curiosity about Tesla’s culture. Tesla and Musk are often in the news for being innovative, for raising billions of dollars without ever being profitable, and for disrupting the automotive industry. Unlike Google, Tesla’s culture is not often in the news.

Since it's so innovative, wouldn’t its culture be innovative too?  

Musk’s emails, recent articles, Tesla’s website, high executive turnover, and recent job postings confirm only part of the assumption about Tesla’s culture is true. Tesla nails the modernization of equipment, systems, and processes. (Well, nails as far as production but not as far as profitability.)

It appears Tesla falls short on modern management and leadership. “Falls short” doesn’t mean they hit zero relevant needs of today’s employees. The missing ingredient is warmth. Or, call it compassion, authenticity, genuine connection, or caring. Whatever you call it, it’s missing.

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Tesla’s messaging appears to promise a workplace where you are expected to be the best and you could expect to work with other really smart people to solve big challenges. It does not appear to promise an environment where it cares about the whole person.

For example, on its website, Tesla’s career page describes its culture as, “Fast-paced, energetic, and innovative.” Its website does not, however, list its values.

Job postings include legal messaging about inclusion, along with the following, in the About Tesla section at the bottom: 

Our world-class teams operate with a non-conventional philosophy of inter-disciplinary collaboration. Each member of the team is expected to challenge and to be challenged, to create, and to innovate. We’re tackling the world’s most difficult and important problems—and we wouldn’t succeed without our shared passion for making the world a better place.

To Tesla's credit, it does not promise newcomers more than what they appear to be getting. It tells potential employees what is expected of them and does not say much about what it does for its people. 

When more companies, especially tech startups, are building cultures to encourage work-life balance and integration, Tesla is not focused on the human part its culture. It is focused only on its Mission.

So what, you might ask? Why does culture matter? Isn’t such focus on Mission admirable?

Yes! Focus on Mission is not only admirable, it is essential. The reason warmth is important is not the “why” of Tesla, its Mission. Warmth is important for the “how,” its execution. Tesla relies on people, and people want to be treated with respect, dignity, and value at work. Even smart people, like those who work for Tesla, have expectations of their leadership team and managers. No one wants to feel like their employer chews them up and spits them out. Burnout does not truly inspire or instill innovation or collaboration.

As long as it is doing mind-boggling work, Tesla will continue to attract top talent. Newcomers may be joining with the Andy Sachs attitude from Devil Wears Prada: just stick it out for a year and you can work anywhere. That attitude is not the same as someone who brings their A game to work every day, and its impact on company performance is not the same either. When a company wants people to bring their A game to work, it needs to show people they matter.

Paychecks get what someone has learned already, not continued learning and thinking. Paychecks get bodies, not minds and hearts. 

The good news is Tesla does not have to choose one way or the other. It can focus on its Mission AND its people. It can care about its people all the time, not just when it hits a production milestone. Tesla is so innovative with systems and processes, it surely could embrace more contemporary leadership practices.

The current culture has led to internal sabotage, high executive turnover, no profitability for fifteen years, and a round of layoffs of 9% of its staff. Perhaps it’s time to add the missing ingredient so its culture could propel Tesla forward, improve its chance for long-term sustainability, and help it accomplish its Mission.

Updated July 11, 2018 12:30pm
Just after calling out Elon Musk and Tesla for lacking warmth, they had the opportunity to aid the rescue of twelve boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand. Musk and Tesla stepped up and worked with the rescue team to create a second option, which might be needed if the first strategy could not rescue the group. I may have called them out for lacking warmth (not entirely, mind you), but others were much more critical.

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Musk and Tesla were severely criticized for two things: helping only for publicity and for the improbability of their solution. Referring to their help, Musk says, "Something's messed up if this is not a good thing." Musk and his team stepped up to help. Whatever their personal motives, or however cynical or skeptical an onlooker is, it was indeed a good thing.