Photo: Flickr via OnInnovation
On Tuesday, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would begin laying off about 9% of its workforce.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many employees who had been let go took to Twitter to share their thoughts.
“I just want to let you know that I really enjoyed working for Tesla,” one person tweeted. “No hard feelings about being let go,” another wrote.
“They still believe in the vision and in the mission of the company,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
It’s evidence of the effective way Musk manages his staff, Markman told Business Insider.
“When [Musk] made the decision to eliminate some of those positions, he was clearly not making friends, but still, the people who worked for him believed enough in his vision and respected that vision enough that they accepted that this was something that was necessary to do.”
Markman used the Tesla firings to illustrate a broader point about leadership. The most successful leaders, according to Markman, aren’t preoccupied with whether their subordinates like them. Instead, they’re focused on doing what’s best for the organization.
“Whether [your subordinates] love you as a person or whether they hate you as a person, they have to believe in you,” Markman said. Unfortunately, he added, this isn’t something most leaders understand.
The most powerful combination in a leader is love with an element of fear
An article in the Harvard Business Review, by Harvard professor Amy Cuddy as well as Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, suggests that both competence and warmth are important attributes in a leader.
But “the way to influence — and to lead — is to begin with warmth. … Even a few small nonverbal signals — a nod, a smile, an open gesture — can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns.”
That said, be careful not to display too much warmth, at the expense of displaying dominance. According to Adam Galinsky, a professor of business at the Columbia Business School, it’s generally easier to add empathy to dominance than vice versa because the empathetic person may potentially come across as weak.
Galinsky said the most powerful combination is love with some element of fear. In other words, a leader should be invested in people’s work experience. But if someone steps out of line or fails to achieve something they said they would, consequences should follow.
Leading by fear alone can be an effective strategy, Galinsky said — but only for a short time period. “If your power slips,” he added, “a lot of people will be coming for your head.”
Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, agreed that leading by fear isn’t a sustainable management strategy. “If a leader is hated or feared, then people may work hard in some circumstances, but in general they are going to be less mission-driven and probably more likely to do just what is required,” Jones said.
Still, simply being adored isn’t enough; it’s also important to think about why a leader is loved in the first place.
Jones said a leader should be loved not because they bring doughnuts to the office, but because “they treat their employees fairly and in a way that gives those employees a sense that when they work hard, they are rewarded, and that they are working hard in pursuit of some greater collective mission.”
“If a leader is loved for the right reasons, it’s going to be a sign of organizational strength and success,” he added.
Certain personality types may find it difficult not to be universally loved as a leader
One problem leaders may face in landing on an effective management strategy is that everyone they’re managing is different.
“Some are motivated by strong, dominant leaders; some are motivated by empathetic leaders,” Galinsky said. Leaders are “trying to find a strategy to work on both types of people.”
Jones added that, especially in political contexts, love and hatred are rarely universal. Even if a leader improves social welfare overall, there could be one group who loses out.
Leaders may struggle to reconcile different people’s needs. But they may also struggle with more personal issues. Markman explained that certain personality types — namely, agreeable and narcissistic — can have a hard time leading effectively.
Agreeable people in leadership positions, Markman said, may “have difficulty doing things independently of the reaction that people are going to have to them.” Specifically, they want to be liked — and the idea that doing what’s best for the organization may turn some people off is scary. In fact, research suggests that agreeable people are less likely to become top managers in the first place.
On the other hand, narcissistic people may take on leadership roles and “lash out at people who criticize them,” or try to take credit for other people’s work, which can be demotivating.
As for highly agreeable leaders, Markman recommended developing personal strategies for, say, giving people news they don’t want to hear. Maybe you psych yourself up beforehand with a pep talk.
Or, Markman said, you can simply recognize: “I’m an agreeable person.” Alienating some people may be necessary, but it doesn’t come naturally, and it may feel uncomfortable in the moment.
The best leadership strategy is simply to do what’s best for the company
Markman said that many people transitioning into leadership roles are preoccupied with the decision to be liked or feared. But “when you actually get into a leadership role,” he said, “it really does become much more about what you’re trying to accomplish with respect to the organization.”
There’s work to be done — and spending time worrying what people will think of how you’re doing it is generally ineffective.
Venture capitalist Mark Suster alluded to something similar in a 2010 post on his blog. “It takes a really self-confident and resilient individual to make all of these tough judgment calls on a daily basis,” he wrote.
“But over time if you make the tough calls with no fudges, if you’re fair and don’t play favoritism, if you explain your rationale publicly and clearly, if you help soften the blow to the side that doesn’t get their way … people will respect you. And it is far better to be respected as a leader than loved.”