Will Elon Musk ‘sink’ or swim at Twitter?
Elon Musk’s tenure at Twitter has already been filled with scandal, but what does it mean for the platform’s staff – and its reputation as an employer? Henry Bushell of people-specialist agency Wiser investigates.
Musk has thrown Twitter into choppy waters - but is he also the right person to pull it out again? / Michal Matlon via Unsplash
Elon Musk has said himself that Twitter is going to do “lots of dumb things in coming months”. Having laid off almost 50% of its workforce in his first week on the job, some might argue that has already started. We’ve all seen the immediate impact: disgruntled ex-employees, media uproar, and a lawsuit. But could this decision have graver and longer-lasting consequences than the ‘Chief Twit’ imagines?
The Musk maneuver
Elon Musk hasn’t held back since he ‘freed the bird’ through his purchase of Twitter. Laying off staff; firing top execs; introducing Twitter’s first paid feature; walking into the office holding a sink so that the acquisition could ‘sink in’: his actions have been decisive and bold.
The mass layoffs were perhaps the most controversial of those actions, partly because of the method: employees were given only brief warnings by Musk, and promptly locked out of their accounts. Since the layoffs, Twitter has asked several employees to come back after it was realized that they contributed to vital company services.
Though these layoffs are undeniably thorny, what about the people who didn’t get the sack? For the first week they were treated with radio silence from Musk, while he continued to tweet company updates to the world. Without much contact from Elon, employees read between the lines and look at the implicit messages behind his actions. By firing the company’s top execs (including its CEO) and temporarily bringing in his inner circle of VC friends (Tesla engineers and lawyers), he’s sending out a message that Twitter, as it was, wasn’t enough.
Having lost the relationships and affinity with senior management, and having seen their co-workers laid off in haste, the levels of trust and psychological safety for remaining Tweeps can’t be high. This may be the real damage of the layoffs.
Why does trust matter?
Generating a high-trust environment increases productivity by 50%, and vice versa. In the wake of the layoffs, many won’t want to put the hours in for leaders who they don’t know, trust, or perhaps like, or in service of a purpose and direction which is unclear. Musk will be fighting an uphill battle to motivate his remaining employees to make his vision a reality.
This trust ingredient is often underestimated by C-suite members across the board. Why is it that if the COO came into the boardroom with an innovation that promised to increase productivity by 50%, investing in the project would be a given, but if a HR director comes in with the same statistic about trust, it fails to get the same backing?
At Wiser, we believe the key to unlocking productivity in a business begins internally. A strong internal culture is the foundation of a compelling employer brand that cuts through the noise. We recently explored how companies can build trust in Wiser Insights: a how-to guide for leaders to build cultures that generate trust, and in turn, build their external reputation as an employer.
We’re not saying a consumer brand isn’t critical. Do you think Musk’s five office days a week Tesla policy would fly if he was CEO of Skoda? Absolutely not.
Can Musk disprove the critics again?
Despite our doubts, we wouldn’t be shocked if Musk somehow manages to make Twitter work. After all, he has managed to found and run four highly successful companies despite a seemingly endless slew of lawsuits, some of which relate to poor management practices. Running a company that employees have called a “modern-day sweatshop”, abruptly ending remote working at Tesla (and, more recently, Twitter), and firing employees for criticizing him may have damaged his companies’ Glassdoor ratings, but hasn’t hit their bottom line.
Even Twitter, currently, seems immune to these questionable decisions. Twitter usage, according to Musk, is at an all-time high. But what will Musk's strategy be moving forward? A platform like Twitter, with millions of users and revenue based primarily on advertising, relies on stability and clear strategy.
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His actions certainly indicate in which direction the winds of Twitter's culture are blowing — longer hours and no hybrid working are bold statements, not just policies. He's leading a cultural revolution and there's a sense that he's testing the waters: how far can he push people, how many people will sleep in the office until enough is enough?
But every revolution needs enough people onside to shift perceptions. This feels like Musk’s biggest gamble yet. Will he manage to play the odds again and make it pay off?
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