Companies Should Learn Elon Musk’s ‘Chain of Command’ Rule

Elon Musk has had plenty to share with business owners over the years, and he’s spent plenty of time thinking outside the box. But a comment he made a couple of years ago in a letter to employees may be one more business leaders should consider in a world disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the ‘chain of command,'” Musk wrote to his employees in 2018. “Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.”

Musk went on to say that “a major source of issues” in companies come when communication doesn’t flow freely. As he told his Tesla employees, it “must be OK for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.”

Two years later, the world looks decidedly different for most companies. With many employees working from home, communication between departments has never been more critical. Blowing up the chain of command may be the best way to ensure it flows freely.

The “chain of command” has long been a part of the corporate world. With the CEO or President at the top, his or her direct reports managing various divisions, followed by senior managers, managers, and other employees, it exists, in theory, to provide some structure. 

For Musk, however, that kind of hierarcghy is a very inefficient system. When messages are being pushed up the chain of command, they may get stuck in bottlenecks. They may also change in tone, importance, or context as more people communicate them. Even if a message remains intact on its way up, it may take too long to get to the right person, creating potentially costly problems for the company. 

That problem is even more acute in a world where employees are forced to work remotely using tools like Slack, Asana, Zoom, and others to communicate. It was difficult enough just six months ago to float a message up the chain of command. Now, it may be nearly impossible.

Business leaders therefore need to think seriously about blowing up that chain of command. Yes, it can give you comfort, but it’s not doing you any favors. And like it or not, your senior management team may not be feeding you all the information you need.

Don’t assign the chain of command too much value since, as Musk suggests, it can easily fall short. In a time when businesses are under pressure, nothing that hurts the company and its ability to communicate should live on.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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