The one productivity hack Elon Musk got wrong
Recently, Elon Musk sent a company-wide email to Tesla employees sharing a number of updates as well as his frustration on numerous fronts, which he plans to remedy in the coming weeks and months. The email has since been leaked, reposted, and referenced ad nauseam.
While most of the content was directed at Tesla, there were a number of productivity hacks that Musk shared which have now gone viral. These hacks, especially the ones related to meetings, have media outlets and bloggers praising Musk for actually saying what they’ve always wanted to: meetings are a waste of time.
We need less of them. And when we do meet, it should be better organized, more efficient, and we all should be more engaged. And although I agree with most of Musk’s sentiments, there is one that I think he got wrong:
“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
Elon Musk, CEO & Co-Founder, Tesla Inc., Company-wide email, 4/17/18
Listen, I hate meetings as much as anyone. And I am constantly searching for ways to make them more productive. But this little tidbit of “wisdom” isn’t the way to do it. In fact, it does the exact opposite.
What’s the surest way to show contempt for your colleagues?
Walking out of a meeting.
Unless, of course, it is an actual emergency and you’ve discretely told someone that you need to go. But to simply leave a meeting because you don’t feel you’re adding value is not only disruptive and disrespectful, it signals that you think your time is more valuable than everyone else’s in the room.
In addition, it also displays an extreme amount of arrogance and an unwillingness to learn. Surely you wouldn’t have been invited to the meeting unless the organizer believed you could add value or learn something by attending. The notion that you should just get up and walk out if you don’t feel you can contribute is counterproductive.
“To simply leave a meeting because you feel you can’t add value is not only disruptive and disrespectful, it signals that you think your time is more valuable than everyone else’s.”
Global business demands protocol, sensitivity, and respect
Having had the privilege of working for and with several transformative global leaders throughout my career, I cannot imagine any of them abruptly walking out of a meeting unless an emergency dictated.
Conducting business globally involves having an intimate understanding of and appreciation for your relationships. It requires sensitivity and respect for protocol and unwritten rules—all of which vary in intensity depending on where you are and the industry you’re engaged in.
When it comes to observing these protocols, dignity and respect should be projected in every aspect of how a meeting is arranged, conducted, and concluded. Protocol matters. Showing respect for others matters.
And the potential for offense extends beyond the cross-cultural. There’s a further disadvantage if you are a female executive who does this. Women at work are prejudged and misjudged more harshly for all our actions and interactions, big and small. This is especially true in Silicon Valley, where we are few and far between in the leadership ranks.
If we started abruptly leaving every meeting where we weren’t sure about the value we could add, we may miss the rare leadership opportunities when they present themselves (not to mention the negative blowback from peers who would misread our intentions).
“Dignity and respect should be projected in every aspect of how a meeting is arranged, conducted, and concluded. Protocol matters.”
Meetings are an opportunity to find out where you can add value or learn something from your colleagues. But can there be less of them and can they be run better? Absolutely.
My favorite meeting and team productivity hacks
I appreciate Musk’s emphasis on direct communication, limiting excessive meetings, and eliminating acronyms. In addition, here are some of my favorite productivity hacks to increase efficiency and engagement in meetings.
A few days before a big meeting, or even a week prior for global teams, try having one or two pre-work homework questions. These should get people thinking ahead of time and increase their engagement in the meeting itself.
I am consistently amazed at the number and quality of the ideas that come forth when people simply take a few minutes to focus on the concepts we are engaging with prior to coming together. I have also found that this is the best way to increase accountability from the entirety of a team, because everyone is being asked to contribute and share their ideas.
I have sometimes expanded this to include an anonymous survey that people complete prior to a meeting. This is helpful if we are discussing anything sensitive—like HR, security concerns, diversity, inclusion, or gender equality efforts. This allows for unfiltered and specific feedback, which people would never feel comfortable sharing or discussing publicly.
2. Embedding engagement rituals
If you want to increase engagement, you need to embed rituals in your meetings that will set expectations and encourage it. This can start with everyone sharing their responses to the assigned pre-work questions.
Doing this does two things: One, it gets everyone to participate and engage at least at a basic level to prepare responses to your prompts. And two, it engages the introverts who may not feel comfortable jumping in. I like to start every meeting with 10 minutes of people sharing their responses to the pre-work, which gets everyone involved and engaged from the outset. It’s a small investment of time that can build deeper engagement, transparency, and confidence going forward.
The second engagement ritual that I like to embed and recommend to clients is to not interrupt others when they are speaking. It is bad form to interrupt someone—we all know this. And yet it has become a habit to just interrupt someone at work, because we have time constraints and urgent matters to attend to.
I get it, and I appreciate that we can’t let everyone drone on and on. But if we all tried to limit our interrupting, not only would it increase engagement because people feel fully heard, but you also might be surprised by what you hear when you let someone complete a full thought. Just something to consider.
3. Limit all technology and enforce a take-notes-on-paper policy
One of the biggest complaints I get from my clients is how unproductive their meetings are because people are distracted by doing other things—on their phones, laptops, tablets, etc.
When I hold my masterclasses and seminars in companies, I share my policy for only taking handwritten notes. This is the same policy I enforce for all the grad courses I teach at Hult International Business School.
There are countless neuroscience studies that show we engage a larger, different part of the brain when we put pen to paper. Not only does note-taking increase one’s retention, creativity, and ability to actively listen, it also increases one’s situational awareness, which is essential to read the environment and adapt effectively.
Taking it a step further—and as someone who has a Moleskine journal in hand at all times—you can find a great reference for hacking your note-taking to increase productivity here.
The above three hacks are tried-and-tested with my global clients. I look forward to hearing your favorite hacks and recommendations, too. This is an area where we can always improve.