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Musk's 'Hardcore' Ultimatum to Twitter Employees Sparks Existential Crisis

Twitter's in a nosedive, bleeding top talent in the wake of new owner Elon Musk's brusque broadside to employees. Someone didn't get the memo about post-pandemic IT management.

Within days of "chief Twit" Elon Musk's "extremely hardcore" ultimatum to Twitter employees demanding they knuckle down or accept a severance package, the fallout has reached an existential level for the social messaging titan.

Mass resignations are being reported, resulting in a slowdown in the site's services, and rumors are starting to swirl that Twitter is on its last legs — #RIPTwitter.

It would appear Musk's gamble to rally the troops — if his comments could charitably be viewed in that light — has been a serious miscalculation.

"I don't think it is a smart move," said Karel Lukas, managing partner with the Trevi Group. "Hopefully, behind the scenes, he is doing something on the retention side."

As a leader, Musk needs to retain the best talent, and many of his actions are resulting in a mass exodus, Luka said.

"I think that is part of his plan, to improve his profit and loss statement," he said. "He is pushing people to leave so that he doesn't have to pay the cost of cutting staff."

From Lukas' perspective, the problem is that making your most valuable and dedicated employees feel unappreciated and understaffed will cause them to leave — and those top performers will be difficult and costly to replace.

"Personally, I would be in the 'leave' camp in that situation," said Mike Parkin, senior technical engineer at Vulcan Cyber. "A new owner openly claiming they will implement unpopular policies, then promptly doing so, after laying off a large chunk of the workforce and adding 'features' that reduce the platform's credibility, is a recipe for crushing an organization's morale."

Adding pressure to put in more hours of intense work in that environment is a recipe for rapid worker burnout and a lot of essential people leaving, he added.

"Management in organizations that follow the 'more and harder' philosophy will have to back off before that happens and recognize that it's better to keep talented people happy than it is to push them so hard that leaving is the better option," Parkin said.

Blowback From Twitter Employees Swift, Sudden, Existential

The flood of resignations from Twitter employees — allegedly forcing some temporary office closures — is a global front page news story.

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal — not to mention Drudge Report's upside-down Twitter logo plastered atop the website under the headline "ON ITS LAST TWEET?" — have all negatively amplified Musk's confrontational posture.

"From what I have heard, he has offended so much of the staff with his initial comments and plans that it has already burned a lot of bridges," Lukas said. "Talented, hard-working engineers being asked to work even harder, work even more hours, and commute to the office all the time, all under a cloud of instability? That's not attractive or sustainable."

AlamyTwitter CEO Elon Musk

Twitter CEO Elon Musk (pictured) needs to "bring in a new leader that can rebuild trust and communicate an exciting vision that employees can buy into again," said Karel Lukas, managing partner with the Trevi Group.

Musk has created a "very difficult" situation, with entire teams of critical staff walking out on him, Lukas said.

"He will have to bend over backwards to undo the damage," he said, adding that Musk can try to hire back the most critical people with an apology, higher pay, and commitment (i.e., predefined severance packages), but compensation alone won't solve the problem.

"Most have already mentally moved on. People wants things like challenge, career growth, culture, stability, and flexibility," Lukas said. "A key issue here is that he stated that the company can run with half the staff. Employees already felt overworked."

Few will want to return to a job that they will not enjoy — and besides, they have options.

"So, he will also need to bring in a new leader that can rebuild trust and communicate an exciting vision that employees can buy into again," Lukas said.

Promoting a Culture of Development, Not Derisiveness

Dr. Anna Gajda, vice president of people and enablement for LeanIX, also points to a "very competitive" market for top talent.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult to hire that talent, especially IT professionals," she said. "Hiring top talent and keeping them are, therefore, our key objectives for next year."

To retain these folks, she believes it's crucial to provide a culture where individual development is heard, encouraged, and supported.

"To increase best results, outdated performance management techniques are not the best option," Gajda added. "A modern performance and potential review strategy understands individual development goals and acts upon them."

It's still necessary, she said, to conduct a "personal position determination" to understand the strengths of each employee and possible development areas, but the consequence is not to focus on the development areas and to improve those.

"The consequence is to clearly understand where the employee wants to develop and to derive actions on how the individual strengths can contribute to that and which areas, specific to this development goal, could be looked at for improvement," Gajda said.

Performance management should, therefore, provide clarity on what is expected and how employees can develop to reach the career goals, which are meaningful for them.

"In this way, performance management contributes to a culture of excellence but also to a culture of motivation and belonging — as employees have a strong impact on their personal development," she explained.

Post-Pandemic Shift in Relationships

"The fact is the employee-employer relationship changed dramatically during the pandemic because of the level of trust that employers had to place in their staff," said Megan Slabinski, district director for Robert Half Technology for Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and Northern California. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle at this point, and employees value being given that level of partnership and trust and communication."

From her perspective, it boils down to effective communication: Employers need to explain the why behind business decisions and rationale and gain consensus.

"Morale rings the cash register," Slabinski said. "Employee productivity goes up when they feel like they are a part of something and not just a cog in the wheel."

A rethink of IT management practices is the crux of the key learning here, Slabinski added.

"How do you retain your best people, and how do you attract the best people in the marketplace?" she asked. "Reputation is everything. It sticks, not only for organizations, but for actual hiring managers."

Slabinski pointed out that the technology community of professionals is tight-knit, where there's a lot of transient movement from one organization to the next.

"Managers really need to think about their long-term ability to attract new talent to their organization, but certainly to retain the people that they've worked so hard to train and develop today," she said.

As a rule, Slabinski noted, everyone wants to be treated with respect in every relationship they have, professional or personal.

"How you communicate to people matters," she said. "When someone comes calling with more money or flexible work or better perks, it's really about people working for people. Your individual relationship with your staff is going to make the difference between a resignation letter or retention."

Parkin agrees that there are still a lot of companies that treat their people well and recognize their value, noting that IT overall is still a solid field with strong opportunities.

"The situation at Twitter is unusual, and it seems unlikely that the management style being seen now is going to spread very far," he said.

Successful IT Management Requires Carrots, Not Just Sticks

Lukas agrees that with burnout sentiment running high and so many IT pros open to a change, management must shift to support and encourage their IT workers in a more positive way.

"They need to put some appreciation and carrots in place," Lukas explained. "For example, using the performance review process, they should rate their leaders and all employees in the traditional way — top performers to low performers."

Weeding out the low performers with layoffs is the standard operating procedure, but at the same time, they need to recognize the top performers with awards, appreciation, long-term incentives, retention bonuses, and promotions.

For the people in the middle, Lukas advises the company to invest in people development and make them feel wanted — they will stay if they feel there is a future or career growth opportunities.

"Provide valuable feedback and professional development plans during the performance review process," he said. "Offer training, special projects, and job rotation to help employees develop and expand their skills."

Parkin admits it's not easy for IT managers to walk the line between inspiring tech workers to go beyond the call of duty while also recognizing human limits.

"What motivates people can vary a lot, and not every manager can be an inspiring leader," he said.

From his perspective, erring on the side of "treat your people well" tends to work better than "force them to perform."

"More carrot, less stick," Parkin said. "When people are happy, they're far more willing to go the extra mile."

Gajda added that wellbeing is a genuine concern for LeanIX as a rapidly growing company in a dynamic environment, fighting for the best tech talent.

"Employers should provide individual contributors and leaders with the resources they need to succeed in their role and create a psychologically safe environment, in which each employee feels integrated and supported especially in challenging times," she noted. "Wellbeing is a vital key factor to ensure a mentally and physically comfortable workspace for us all."

About the author

Nathan Eddy headshotNathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITPro Today. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.
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