Driving Innovation Away: SpaceX and Its Culture Problem

An article observing the tech sector’s embrace and use of Elon Musk’s management style prompted much of this analysis. The “Bosses on Top” philosophy isn’t so much a philosophy as it is a return to the simpler days of humans living in caves when might made right. It’s a fun article to read with some significant observations.

This analysis is also not about SpaceX’s high employee turnover rate. The company is notorious for using the best and brightest while rapidly reducing those best and brightest to tired and cynical (as well as looking for new work). That’s a different problem, although some of that concept–its ability to skim the best and brightest from the space industry workforce–will be impacted by the current problems SpaceX’s management seems to be encouraging. 

SpaceX is a company that has created products synonymous with cutting-edge innovation. It’s a disruptor in the global launch services market. The company’s leader, Elon Musk, has grand visions for sending people to Mars on the company’s rocket ships. It is a company with futuristic rockets (they can land on their tail??!!!) that seems to be a pathfinder for the future of space.  Which makes it odd to witness its managers as they embrace ineffective management theories from the past. SpaceX’s management seems to be exemplifying one of Peter Drucker’s (a business management guru) observations:

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”

It’s not a profound statement, as any employee in a dysfunctional workplace will tell you. The prevalence of the type of management Drucker refers to is such that even employees in decent work environments will understand his statement (I saw much of this in the Air Force, but not just there). But it was essential and fundamental enough that Drucker felt compelled to remind readers of that truth. Since people are the wellspring of innovation in an organization, how do SpaceX’s management and behavior (the difficult part) impact its employees’ capacity for innovation? 

A Coal Mine Filled with Canaries

That last question comes to the fore as stories keep bubbling up from the company’s employee ranks about management behaviors. I’ve already addressed some of the company’s challenges in a previous analysis (near the end). The latest case is the story of a complaint some of SpaceX’s employees penned and signed. The open complaint’s result was predictable: employees were fired, and SpaceX’s management did its best imitation of Officer Barbrady, hand-waving while repeating, “Nothing to see here.”

It’s obvious Musk doesn’t stick to societal norms while trolling on Twitter. But, calling him out in an announcement doesn’t seem like the most intelligent method to achieve a civil Musk. Still, based on the other human resources issues that have resulted in company non-responses or denials, maybe company employees felt like the letter was the only avenue of redress left. 

There are other problems with the complaint, but this analysis isn’t about fixing the unfixable. It’s mentioned only to note that there’s yet another signal from employee ranks that SpaceX should be paying attention to. All is not well on the company’s path to the future. Despite the firings, perhaps the complaint prompts SpaceX’s management, at the very least, to start looking closely at the toxic culture that appears to be multiplying like red tide in Tampa Bay. It may behoove the management to look in the mirror.

The EXTREMELY basic facts:

  • Employees can leave SpaceX whenever they wish.
  • Musk is SpaceX’s CEO and can run the company into the ground if he desires.

Driving Away Ideas and Innovation (A Slow Death)

The first bullet point is a luxury that SpaceX currently enjoys. It appears to be the only company pushing technology to do interesting and useful things in the space industry. It’s one of the few operational companies with a stated vision beyond the Earth. 

The company’s CEO is a great salesman, selling the vision and the potential to achieve investment returns on the way. All of that combines to get people to enter the enticing SpaceX talent siphon willingly. They love the idea of creating remarkable technologies and believe that those technologies will give humans a ride to Mars. A sales pitch and extraordinary work only go so far. Those employee concerns are becoming more frequent, a sign that someday, SpaceX won’t have its pick of the space workforce. Based on the increased frequency, I am assuming that some of the employees’ concerns are true. If they are true, then, based on what appears to be a lack of response and support from management, other factors come into play that will negatively impact SpaceX’s efforts. 

For example, a toxic work environment while management looks the other way quickly focuses even the most motivated employee to merely surviving in the workplace, not thriving in it. That focus means employees are more worried about a lack of enforcement of basic workplace expectations instead of focusing on the work. Suppose managers pooh-pooh employee concerns about this behavior. In that case, it is so much worse because the employee isn’t just concerned about abusive coworkers but also worries about crossing the boss as any complaint shows they aren’t “team players.” If the manager is the source of the employee concerns, then that’s another level of terribleness. 

However, people will tolerate a lot if they are: 1) hopeful for a redress of their concerns, 2) fearful for their job, 3) buying into the mission, 4) generally surrounded by peers who act like adults, 5) compensated reasonably well, and/or 6) somehow convinced they might be the problem, not the office jerk that is making their lives miserable. But an environment of toxic toleration is not conducive to the creative thoughts necessary for innovation. After all, in that environment, even the “true believers” become more concerned about survival than the company mission. 

It’s not just a logical response; it’s a proper one. But that toleration means it is also a slow road that ends in the company’s culture chasing out its most productive and creative employees.

In the meantime, instead of trained and motivated employees, the culture encourages them to become human placeholders, searching for a more attractive work opportunity elsewhere while trying to survive in SpaceX. They will learn to hold back on their best ideas because the company shows no concern for their wellbeing (so why show concern for the company?). The sexual harassment the company keeps denying is not a problem will make this worse, isolating members of SpaceX’s workforce who have other perspectives and experiences, a valuable asset for any company.  

Employees are an asset for companies in a different way as well–marketing. Happy, fulfilled employees tend to chat more often with friends about their work. They’ll take pictures and post them with comments on social media. When asked about how things are at work, they will talk about the great people they work with and the cool things they’re working on. Those experiences encourage droves of job seekers to apply to a company. 

Unhappy employees will not do that. They won’t volunteer any information in a social setting, and when friends prompt them, their hesitation to talk about work will speak volumes about how work truly is. They want to think of anything other than work when they leave. People will pick up on that vibe and shy away from working for that company. The result will be that while it’s all well and good to say that employees have the option to leave, that assumption has a built in bias of employees as disposable, not worth the company’s time to train and retain. That bias will chip away at SpaceX’s current luxury of choosing who it wants. Again, this is a slow process, but the result is a shrinking pool of great candidates from which the company can choose.

Everyone’s at Fault but the Boss

For the second bullet, as a former United States Air Force officer, I understand that rank has privileges. However, I also have witnessed and understand the particular and sadly prevalent management style on display whenever Musk throws the company’s employees and managers under the bus. It’s not leadership nor entrepreneurship. Musk tends to blame employees and managers for the challenges that have confronted him, sometimes publicly on Twitter, which is the opposite of what a leader does. 

Occasionally working in an assembly line with underlings, understanding who they are and why they are there, is leadership. But to publicly and essentially say “you’re doing it wrong” and then work alongside underlings as the only one who can fix it is micromanagement at its worst. In all cases, Musk’s actions aren’t meant to lead his employees, only to remind the world and his employees that he’s in charge. His words and actions assume the worst of his employees: they can’t be trusted. Who wants to work for someone like that

The work environment, the behavior, the words–it all adds up. Sure, SpaceX is setting records and accomplishing many of the most exciting space industry projects. It does those things because of the talented people in the company. Elon Musk is essential to them only because he can convince investors to keep throwing money into the company to keep those projects going. His focus on his vision is also a positive driver. Increasingly, however, the company’s workplace problems, Musk’s way of managing (with Shotwell’s acceptance), public comments, behavior, and more are negatives pushing people to question why they are tolerating it all.

It’s not a point that people should ever arrive at, but it’s the next logical step with many following whenever a company and its management make it difficult to work. Without the creatives and the atmosphere that encourages them to not only stay but innovate, it’s doubtful that SpaceX will be a company of the future unless it heeds its employees’ concerns as much as it does their technology ideas.

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