Tesla doesn’t understand that its goals are different from its employees’

Some Tesla workers say that the company’s attempts to ramp up production are actively hurting them.
Some Tesla workers say that the company’s attempts to ramp up production are actively hurting them.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Tesla’s bosses probably think they write great motivational emails.

“Let’s make them regret ever betting against us,” Doug Field, Tesla’s head of engineering, wrote in an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg, urging factory workers to volunteer to help the company meet its production goals on Model 3 cars. “You will prove a bunch of haters wrong.”

The “haters” in question are the increasingly vocal skeptics expressing doubt that Tesla can live up to its own hype. Persistent manufacturing issues have hobbled the electric car maker’s ability to churn out sufficient numbers of Model 3s. The company missed its target of 5,000 Model 3s per week by the end of 2017 by a long shot, and market analysts suspect Tesla has been struggling to meet its goal of delivering 2,500 Model 3s per week by the end of March. (The company will give a delivery report next week.)

This is certainly a problem for Tesla. But Field’s email falls into a classic management trap: It assumes that the company’s goals are identical to the goals of its employees.

For one thing, some Tesla workers say that the company’s attempts to aggressively ramp up production are actively hurting them, leading to serious injuries and medical issues as well as creating an atmosphere of intense stress and punishing hours, as The Guardian reported in 2017. “I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake and smash their face open,” Jonathan Galescu, a production technician at Tesla, told The Guardian. “They just send us to work around him while he’s still lying on the floor.”

Some Tesla employees have attempted to unionize with United Auto Workers in order to address these issues, but have encountered strong resistance from their employer. The union filed a complaint in October alleging that the company has violated labor laws by firing and harassing known organizers, a charge that CEO Elon Musk disputes. Regardless, as Hamilton Nolan notes in a post on Splinter News, it’s fairly tone-deaf for Tesla management to try to get factory workers excited to meet the very production goals that they say are creating a grueling, and sometimes dangerous, work environment. 

Of course, not every company will confront allegations that meeting its production or sales goals is doing workers harm. Even so, there’s a lesson in Field’s email misstep. As Carolyn Dewar and Scott Kellar explain in the Harvard Business Review, “Employees don’t care as much about the company as you think they do.” That doesn’t mean that employees are apathetic or lazy; it’s just that their entire sense of self isn’t centered on whether a company meets a given target.

“Leaders, rationally enough, appeal to the company’s circumstances when making a case for change,” Dewar and Kellar continue. “But social science points to five sources of meaning for humans at work: the impact of the work on society, the customer, the company, the team, and ‘me.'” In other words, meeting a company’s goals may be a motivating factor for some workers—certainly to the extent that their job security depends on the company staying afloat and in good health. But it’s unlikely to be their exclusive source of motivation, or even the central one.

When Field writes, “The world is watching us very closely, to understand one thing: How many Model 3’s can Tesla build in a week?” he’s trying to instill a sense of urgency and competitiveness in Tesla’s factory workers. But to a lot of people, shipping out 2,500 Model 3s per week probably sounds like a pretty arbitrary thing to strive for.

So what should a manager do to motivate their employees to achieve a given target? One research-backed suggestion: Put employees in touch with the people who benefit from their work.

One 2007 study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Decision Processes, had workers at a school fundraising center interact face-to-face with a student who had benefited from a scholarship. A month later, the workers who’d spoken with a student for just five minutes were bringing in more money and spending longer on calls than workers in the control groups.

As Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz explains in an interview, “It turns out, it not only matters what people do, it matters why they do it.” Deep down, most employees don’t really care about whether their employer hits a particular number. But they care a lot about the social impact of their work. And so when managers want to motivate workers to make a big push toward a specific goal, they shouldn’t emphasize how much it matters to the company—they should demonstrate how hitting that goal will help people outside the company’s walls.