Elon Musk embodies the quality people hate most in a boss

Elon Musk is not known for his consistency.
Elon Musk is not known for his consistency.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke
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Elon Musk is known for many things: Being bullish on electric cars and colonizing Mars; naming a baby X Æ A-12; doing a decent Wario impression. But reliability is not among the billionaire entrepreneur’s evident traits.

In 2018, for example, Musk announced he had the funding to take Tesla private at $420 a sharea shaky claim that forced him into a $40 million securities fraud settlement with US regulators. Also that year, Musk baselessly accused a diver involved in the rescue of 12 Thai children trapped in a cave of being a pedophile. And just this month, he agreed to join Twitter’s board, quickly backed out, and is now offering to buy the social media network for $54.20 a share, citing his lack of confidence in the current management.

Some Twitter employees are reportedly freaked out at the prospect of Musk buying the company—and understandably so. Research shows that volatility and inconsistency are among the most dreaded traits in a boss. And those are qualities Musk has demonstrated in spades.

The stress of working for a volatile boss

At an internal Twitter meeting this week, employees voiced concerns about Musk’s history of erratic behavior. According to an account in the New York Times, one staffer compared it to a “hostage situation.”

“I don’t believe we are being held hostage,” Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal reportedly replied.

But working for a leader whose behavior is unpredictable can certainly feel that way.

One 2016 study, published in the Academy of Management, found that people are physiologically less stressed out by a supervisor who’s consistently a jerk than a boss who’s reasonable one day and unfair the next. The study also found that workers with unpredictable bosses are more likely to say they’re emotionally drained and unhappy at their jobs than those with bosses who are consistently awful.

“A lot of it centers around this issue of uncertainty,” Fadel Matta, one of the study’s co-authors and now an associate professor at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, told the Washington Post. “This notion of knowing what to expect—even if it’s bad—is better than not knowing what to expect at work.”

Does Elon Musk change his mind too often?

Previous interviews with Tesla workers have painted a portrait of workplace that’s beholden to Musk’s mood swings. “Everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon,” one former executive told Wired.

Just as destabilizing as emotionally volatile bosses are those who don’t do what they say they will. While it’s a good thing when leaders are open to admitting they’re wrong and changing their minds as they get new information, flipping positions too often can erode workers’ trust.

Musk has a track record of failing to deliver on his promises, including reneging on his word to employees. In 2020, for example, he gave Tesla employees permission to stay home if they didn’t feel comfortable going to the factory during the pandemic, then allegedly fired workers for failing to return in person.

To Musk’s credit, he admits that his expectations don’t always turn out to be accurate. “I don’t want to blow your mind, but I’m not always right,” Musk told the Washington Post this week, discussing his past overconfidence in the timeline for rolling out fully self-driving cars.

The cultures Musk oversees at Tesla and SpaceX

There are plenty of other purported problems with the management culture that Musk oversees: Tesla got hit with a $15 million fine (slashed from $137 million) for a racial discrimination lawsuit, and factory workers have also spoken about how pressures to ramp up production have led to unsafe working conditions on the job. In December 2021, five former SpaceX employees came forward with allegations that the company fosters a culture of sexual harassment—just a month after Musk made waves for tweeting a sexist joke.

The concerns now being raised by Twitter employees are a reminder of just how important stability is in a leader. As Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, tells the Harvard Business Review: “When you are dealing with an emotional roller coaster kind of person, it often makes your challenges at work infinitely greater.”