Twitter’s idea of asking for commitment from employees is actually the right thing to do; unfortunately, how it was executed was the exact opposite of the way to do it.
Elon Musk sent a letter to Twitter employees reading, “Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore . . . This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.” Perhaps surprisingly, this is often the right thing to do. Unsurprisingly, Musk did it in an incredibly poor way.
Sometimes companies or departments will need to undertake a big challenge. It's important for a company to be upfront about that. Employees don't benefit by being pulled into an arduous project they don't want to be on, and employers are better off knowing who will be part of the project and who won’t be, instead of having people drop out halfway through, creating a morale spiral.
However, such conversations, while sometimes announced en masse, should be had one-on-one with managers to go through the details. The discussion should cover how long it will last, what the work and level of effort will be like, and most importantly what rewards the employee will get for sticking with it. Effectively, you're rewriting the unofficial employment agreement.
At a startup early in my career we spent months of long days to launch our first product. Right before the launch we saw a large competitor enter the market and we (the leadership team) quickly realized we had to pivot. We got the whole company together, which at the time was less than thirty people, and talked about what we were pivoting to and why we needed to do it. We set out a new course which would involve intense work for a few more months. We fielded questions in the meeting and then were open to one-on-one talks. No one left the company, and we got acquired a few months after we launched the new post-pivot product.
Asking for commitment is one thing; but with Twitter you have a guy who is drawing a line in the sand and asking for a blank check. Leading is about getting followers to commit to a vision. In our case we laid out a clear vision and people bought into it. Musk does not have a clear vision outlined, it’s just Twitter 2.0, whatever that means. Worse, has a history of being capricious, as well as firing detractors. Why should someone commit with no clear upside, especially when the risks of frustration, termination, or overall company failure are high?
It may have been different if this was November 2008 when the economy was in freefall. In that case the upside is: you get to keep a job amid the highest unemployment in decades. That’s not where we are today; despite some headline layoffs the tech labor market is still pretty strong and the employees have options (see Lessons from the Recent Tech Layoffs).
Edward Yourdon in his book Death March discusses these seemingly impossible projects. They wind up being over time and over budget. In their wake they leave stress, anxiety, and bad work environments, to say nothing to the broken marriages, waning friendships, and the physical and emotional toll they take on the people in them. I’ve been willing to do such projects on occasion, such as the one I noted earlier, because in my twenties I could make that commitment for several months. But to do them people need a clear vision to buy into, a sense that there is a clear goal or endpoint of when the march will be over (even if it may take a while to get there), and a clear reward for doing so. Twitter offers none of these right now.
If you are facing such a critical project at your organization, you can, and very much should, be transparent with your employees. (Employees, feel free to share this with your manager–you can throw in a few other articles I wrote so it doesn’t look so obvious.) If the nature of the work is going to be different, be up front about it. Unlike the proverbial frog who sits in the pot as it gets hotter, even if some employees may not realize it at first, others will. Once they start to jump, other employees will follow. Recognize that this is a change in expectations as to the employee’s effort, and so it should be met with a commiserate change in the expectations of company’s compensation for that effort. This may be an increased salary, a bonus, promotion or other reward for completion, or alignment of outcomes with equity. Just be sure the change isn’t one sided.
When the house is burning it's one thing to rally people to take risks to put it out. You'd appeal to a sense of purpose, teamwork, and larger vision. It's another to say something akin to: you damn well better do it my way or else don't do it at all with no discussion. My guess is employees who haven't yet quit or been fired will be updating their resumes and ramping up their job search.
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