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Jessica Brannigan

Culture Amp

Lead People Scientist

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Twitter: Elon Musk is running an employee value proposition in reverse

If the new owner of the struggling social media company wants his workforce to become more productive, he’ll have to make Twitter an attractive place to be.

When new Twitter owner Elon Musk issued a decree about the values he’d be instilling among the workforce – that staff would need to “work long hours” and be “hardcore” – it almost seemed as if he was inviting large swathes of the workforce to leave. In the following days, that’s exactly what hundreds of Twitter employees did, sparking further speculation about the survival of the company.

Despite some high-profile technology businesses cutting jobs in recent months, the industry remains ultra-competitive. Amidst a global skills shortage, most technology organisations understand all too well the ongoing war for talent and, as a result, are sharpening their strategies around employee value propositions (EVP) – in short, the reasons why employees would want to join or stay at a company. 

‘Extremely hardcore’ work seems to mean high-pressure roles, long hours, a lack of autonomy, and a requirement to be on site

An EVP in reverse

Musk may have had motivation in mind when he said his all-new Twitter would require long hours at “high intensity” and that “only exceptional performance” would make the grade. But he risks running an EVP in reverse, with serious consequences like shedding valuable talent and putting those who remain at the business at risk of burnout.

Particularly after the pandemic, employees are looking for flexibility. They want hybrid or remote work roles, and businesses are scrambling to draw talent in rather than turn it away. Elon Musk, though, appears only to be offering a difficult working environment – insisting staff remain at the office at all times, while also cutting perks like free lunches in a bid to save $13 million a year. All of this makes work less attractive and adds to the personal cost of employment.

While having committed employees is essential in difficult times, Musk has largely focused on what the remaining workforce will no longer have than any perks of the job: all stick, no carrot. 

‘Extremely hardcore’ work seems to mean high-pressure roles, long hours, a lack of autonomy, and a requirement to be on site. Just what, exactly, is being offered for employees to stay? 

Even among employees who find value in Musk’s proposals – what we would call individuals with anxiety-led drive – the kind of productivity required to meet his expectations is simply not sustainable on an individual basis, or perhaps even possible.

Working people to the bone is not sustainable

According to recent Culture Amp research, surveying more than 200,000 employees across 741 organisations between June 2020 and June 2022, only 40% of people in the highest performance brackets remain in that tier by the time of their next performance reviews. 

This means most people will not make it into the top bracket from one cycle to the next. Does that suggest these high-performers have become lazy and need to reassess their work life? Not at all: remaining at peak performance is, simply put, very difficult and unrealistic over time for most. 

The idea of high performers is often rooted in a misunderstanding of how people work. High performance is not an intrinsic trait or characteristic of the individual: high performance is something that people do. It can be situational, based on many variables, from what’s going on in their personal life to what’s happening at work.

Musk’s belief that employees should work themselves to the bone for nothing in return is unsustainable. Putting the impact on employee wellbeing aside and focusing purely on productivity, managers will not boost performance by exhausting their workforce.

Your employees might as well be working drunk

It is a scientific fact that tired people are bad at decision-making. According to studies by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) among others, they’re even worse at decision-making than drunk people. Enforcing long hours and sleepless nights will rarely have the desired effect of a more efficient workforce.

Organisations need a large base of good performance every day, precisely because it’s so difficult to be at peak performance at all times. Most businesses will want a robust grounding of good performers, who will stay with the business and deliver consistently good work, rather than geniuses who come in and out in the blink of an eye. 

The pool of people who are ‘high performers’ will evolve and shift over time, so while Musk’s comment about expecting ‘exceptional performance’ may have been a throwaway one, it raises major questions about how this would play out in reality. 

By surveying employee engagement and sentiment, managers can build a more nuanced picture of staff feeling about what the organisation is good at

Measuring performance is critical

From Musk’s statement, there seems to be little indication of how the organisation would measure performance. 

What are the Objectives and Key Results? What is realistic to expect? And how would employees be rewarded for being high performers? What are the metrics?

A more appropriate way to build an enticing EVP is to start by listening to your employees, rather than imposing top-down vagaries.

By surveying employee engagement and sentiment, managers can build a more nuanced picture of staff feeling about what the organisation is good at, and where there is room for improvement. 

This helps build confidence around attracting new hires, too, because if your staff are saying that your organisation is great in certain regards, it’s likely that this experience will carry over to staff only just joining the company.

Organisations might also benefit from plotting out the kinds of personas or types of talent they are hoping to hire. 

This could be based on the nature of the role, or other metrics; for example, seeking to bring more women into leadership roles. By looking at key drivers for individuals with these types of roles or demographics, organisations can then design EVPs based on specific needs, and what makes an employer attractive to that type of person. 

The work doesn’t stop at building a strong EVP programme. Organisations should then monitor their own performance – something we call a continuous listening strategy – looking for weaknesses to be improved, but also strengths to lean into. Employees should also be asked why they have joined the organisation, as well as why they leave, allowing management to adjust policies accordingly. 

The stick method doesn’t work

In the previously mentioned Culture Amp research, our team of people scientists found that the three key ways to turn good performers into high performers, perhaps unsurprisingly, have nothing to do with threatening them.

First, expectations should be made clear, with job descriptions that accurately reflect roles. Second, development must be offered to the employees that would most benefit them, with equal growth opportunities available to good performers. And third, preferential treatment from managers must be nipped in the bud: opportunities need to be offered to employees equally as opposed to just those high performers favoured by certain managers.

In that same research, we found that some of the most pressing issues for consistent high performers are career development and general wellbeing.

We also discovered that the number one reason people join a business is the number one reason that they leave: career development. Businesses often recognise this, but they frequently fall short of delivering on career development promises.

For employees facing a lot of pressure in their day-to-day work lives, it’s crucial that they feel supported

Support your people or witness not-so-quiet quitting

For employees facing a lot of pressure in their day-to-day work lives, it’s crucial that they feel supported, with resources to cope with stress and avoid burnout. A robust, caring, pastoral environment is therefore absolutely critical for retaining high performers – because, without access to support, employees are at high risk of burning out.

This is an issue for the wider organisation because unhappy employees tend to leave, and it’s the competitive technology landscape where workers are most likely to quit – as hundreds did at Twitter over the weekend. 

Interested in this topic? Read Elon Musk’s Twitter lay-offs. How not to handle UK redundancies.

Author Profile Picture
Jessica Brannigan

Lead People Scientist

Read more from Jessica Brannigan

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