Vocabulary.com defines musky as “a smell might make you close your eyes and smile, or it might make you leave a room. Either way, it’s a very strong and sweet odor that’s hard to ignore…sometimes rotting fruit smells musky as well. Hard to know whether smelling musky is a good or bad thing.”
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has his fans savoring what they seem to feel is the sweet smell of success and free speech. His critics are holding their noses and waiting for Twitter to implode.
Two recent columns in The Guardian hold their noses at Elon’s musky scent. In “Beware the self-made ‘genius’ entrepreneurs promising the earth,” Kenan Malik writes, “the world seems to divide into Musk lovers and Musk haters, a cleavage that has become particularly acute since his acquisition of Twitter… The icon of the self-made entrepreneur of genius has survived only because of fabulous state subsidies… According to his biographer Ashlee Vance, Musk constantly appropriates for himself the credit for the work of his engineers and programmers.”
In his Guardian column, “Elon Musk went on a firing frenzy at Twitter. Now he’s paying for it,” former US secretary of labor and professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Reich states, “With most of Twitter’s employees gone, most of its know-how to prevent outages and failures during high-traffic events is also gone…corporations that regard employees only as costs to be cut rather than as assets to be nourished can make humongous mistakes. Elon Musk is Exhibit 1…where employees are a corporation’s key assets, workers’ greater power comes in threatening to — or actually — walking out the door.”
Objectifying and dehumanizing people seems to be a pattern at Musk’s companies. CNN recently reported on eight former SpaceX (a company Musk owns) employees filing a labor-law complaint for being fired after they wrote to company leaders “begging them to publicly condemn Musk’s ‘harmful’ behavior on social media.” CNN wrote, “SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell described the ‘No Asshole’ policy in a commencement address last year, saying, ‘These kinds of people — assholes — interrupt others; they shut down or co-opt conversation; and they create a hostile environment where no one wants to contribute. … Embrace the ideas of your fellow workers, especially when they differ greatly from yours.'”
Sounds like the new Twitter boss. Seems obvious where that musky smell is coming from.
Musk appears to be a brilliant technical and perhaps financial “genius” with very low regard — even contempt — for people. He’s like the high IQ, low EQ, dehumanizing retail/technology global VP who joined us (and met the Canadian leadership team for the first time) at a strategic planning retreat a few years ago. After my presentation on the power of effective people leadership (requested by the Canadian GM and the main reason I was contracted), the global VP (the GM’s new boss) got up and strongly denounced the discussion. He said technical and analytical skills were the key to career advancement at their company. He went so far as to state, “you can be a complete asshole as long as you’re the smartest person in the room.”
Throughout the strategy session, it became clear the global VP was the quintessential bully boss. The GM confirmed this in follow-up conversations with me after the retreat. He quit after a few more months of dealing with autocratic and tyrannical behavior. He said, “Life’s too short to live in such a toxic culture no matter how much money they throw at me.”
They’re People. Not Head Count, Human Capital, or Resources Wrapped in Skin
Since I grew up on a farm, whenever I hear managers use the term “headcount,” it grates like fingernails scratching a blackboard. When managers say things like, “we’ve got to reduce our headcount,” I immediately think of cattle. In the community where I grew up, farmers would ask each other questions like “how many head are you milking?” when talking about cows in a dairy herd.
Despite all their pious declarations about the importance of people, leadership, and values, far too many managers — especially STEMM leaders — treat people like things. They are just one more set of assets to be managed. Except they are breathing and have skin wrapped around them.
In his Fortune article “A New Way to Think about Employees,” Thomas Stewart writes, “We should not confuse human beings with human capital at all. Surely people are not assets in the same way that their desks and chairs are assets, or that factories or bank balances are.”
Phrases like “headcount” dehumanize and objectify people. We could really push this further and make the same argument for “human resources.” Some companies now refer to this department as People rather than Human Resources.
We have decades of evidence that treating people like humans, not technology — the so-called soft skills — builds a much healthier, safer, engaged, service-oriented, high-quality, and profitable culture. BUT…many of today’s companies using artificial intelligence, algorithms, and machine-learning optimization are dehumanizing. Even worse, employee surveillance systems shouting messages of distrust that widen we/they gaps.
In the 1950s, American writer, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano: America in the Coming Age of Electronics, showed the negative impact technology could have on quality of life. His depiction of how automation can dehumanize is both a look back and a look forward. He writes, “If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people always getting tangled up in the machinery…the world would be an engineer’s paradise.” Smells like an Elon musky Twitter.
Most of us want to be treated as a person, not a dehumanized resource. Managers who view “their people” as property are cold and dispassionate. They’d make perfect donors for heart transplants since their hearts have had such little use!
Time will tell whether the fruits of Elon’s musky odor will be the sweet smell of success or cause Twitter advertisers, users, and employees to flee the stench.