In a recently revealed email to his employees at Tesla, Elon Musk preached the virtues of collaboration and lack of hierarchical communications as a best practice for successful communications in a company. He is right and wrong. Not all companies are set up or staffed like a high tech/engineering company similar to Tesla. Rather, for most businesses, top down communications remains vital to operations, employee engagement and overall business success.
“Collaboration” and “transparency” are the buzz words of the day in larger, enterprise-sized organizations. Millennials and GenZ will be the vast majority of the workforce in the coming years. Unsurprisingly, companies are coming up with strategies and tactics appealing to individuals who grew up expecting immediacy and instant gratification. But what about the importance of relying on the experience of senior managers, not to mention protocol and order within an organization? This is where I disagree with Mr. Musk. Employees should be empowered to share their thoughts, but not at the expense of a business plan — developed by senior colleagues — that they may not be fully aware of or familiar with.
Having worked with companies of all sizes and across many industries, it is plain to see that American businesses have some fundamental challenges communicating effectively with their employees, particularly as so many workers are now more comfortable with iPhones and Androids than they are with desktops or even printed materials. This is a monumental shift in how employees access and digest information, and some efforts towards collaboration and removing hierarchies in communications threaten to create more misunderstanding at the wrong time.
Balancing the need for fostering collaboration while maintaining organizational structure is highly important. As such, it is worth considering some of the major developments in communications technology that are impacting employee engagement and business performance:
Companies in industries where significant proportion of the workforce does not sit behind a desktop computer — like retail, hospitality, manufacturing and healthcare/hospitals — comprise nearly a third of U.S. Gross Domestic Product but struggle to get important information into the hands of their employees. Intermediary managers just don’t prove successful in ensuring the delivery of information. This has the potential to seriously impact an employees’ job, and even their livelihood. Communicating top down from headquarters to the front-line simultaneously and instantaneously is critical to successfully engaging employees and growing the business.
Corporate communications vs. collaboration
Confusion exists in the marketplace when it comes to understanding the difference between corporate communications and collaboration. Yes, collaboration involves communication between people, and this is extremely beneficial when it comes to the sharing of ideas, working together in groups and fostering good will and morale.
However, when companies grow to a certain size, collaboration at the corporate level can become unmanageable and sometimes unruly. Many organizations don’t have the ability or resources to manage such a situation. Hence the need exists to rely on tools that can streamline the delivery of content and information but not at the expense of discouraging discourse between employees. Top-down communications and collaboration are not mutually exclusive.
Related: 5 Ways to Empower Your Employees
Clear directives on communications
It is critical to business success that an organization’s employees understand and be in the know with regard to their company’s strategy, goals and direction. However, while mechanisms exist for empowering employees to surface and share good ideas, a hierarchy of communications and clarity of direction still remains necessary. This is not to suggest that the structure of “order” as we know it in the military be the same as in business. However, most people still understand the concept of chain of command and why a private contacting a four-star general, unprompted, is not helpful to the overall mission.
Consider the channels you use carefully. It is interesting that Mr. Musk chose to communicate his message to Tesla’s employees via email. I suppose that most, if not all of Tesla’s employees, have “tesla.com” email addresses. In a lot of tech firms, other collaboration tools have made email look passé, so it’s easy to forget that a huge proportion of the American workforce does not have regular access to email. How should you deliver your company’s communications philosophy if (i) you hire a lot of part-time employees and cannot give them corporate email addresses or (ii) your employees are on their feet for hours a day caring for patients or working on an assembly line without access to a desktop computer?
Elon Musk is clearly a brilliant man doing great things with his teams; but business owners can’t just hang on every word from the prominent cover stars and replicate those philosophies across their business. This is particularly perilous when it comes to internal communications. Entrepreneurs should carefully assess the needs of their employees and business before adopting a “Wild West” policy to communications that seems to be de rigueur right now. Fashions come and go. But there is a reason why some practices have persisted for generations.