The risk of thinking of your job as a higher calling

In a memo announcing that Tesla will lay off 3,000 workers, or 7% of its employees, CEO Elon Musk outlined his reasoning, explaining the mounting financial pressures the company faces in its quest to build an affordable electric car.

The memo also included a noteworthy emotional appeal. Musk essentially asked employees— those who have already survived a brutal work schedule and will stay on to survive more of the same—to remember Tesla’s mission. Segueing from details about the company’s financial picture to the news of the layoffs, Musk writes:

There are many companies that can offer a better work-life balance, because they are larger and more mature or in industries that are not so voraciously competitive. Attempting to build affordable clean energy products at scale necessarily requires extreme effort and relentless creativity, but succeeding in our mission is essential to ensure that the future is good, so we must do everything we can to advance the cause.

Musk often references his ambitious plans to save humanity, whether via Tesla or his space-faring SpaceX. Still, as CEO messaging goes, this attempt to rally the remaining troops and push them to their limits work-wise is suspect. And management research shows it could easily backfire.

A career “calling” and the risk of exploitation 

Dawna Ballard, a scholar of chronemics—the study of time and our relationship to it—says she wasn’t surprised to learn that Musk was pointing to “the cause” as an implied explanation for the impossibility of creating a strong work-life balance.

A professor in the communication studies department at the University of Texas at Austin, Ballard already uses articles about Musk’s famously intense work habits in classes, because, as she explains, he repeatedly disparages the idea that excellent, competitive work and a humane schedule can co-exist. Everything is “subjugated to work’s demands,” Ballard says, making Musk the archetype subscriber to a cultural norm she wants her students to dissect. His appeal to “the cause” fits well within his ethos, she adds, but it also reads to her like a mash-up of a known phenomenon in social-sector jobs and private-sector expectations.

People who work in social-sector jobs that serve a moral purpose, such as protecting children from abuse or serving the elderly, are typically under-resourced and overworked, mainly, Ballard says, because of the myth that people who heed a higher calling—including teaching or nursing—can somehow be satisfied with the knowledge that they’re improving the world. This idealized view that connects our noblest work to poverty “comes from the priesthood,” she says, “and can be used as a way to get people to downplay practical needs and concerns,” like sleeping and eating.

But, no matter what we want to believe, “there are just physiological barriers,” says Ballard. “There’s only so many hours in a day, and there are only so many hours a person can work and still function.”

In her recent research, she found that social workers who were forced to work overtime made mistakes in their reporting and were more prone to transgressions like faking check-in visits to the homes of at-risk children.

Convincing governments to improve budgets for such employees is a challenge, not only because of our cultural assumptions around “calling” professions, but because spending the money to give social workers the time and tools they need to work properly may not show immediate payoffs. The combination creates the conditions for exploitation, Ballard argues.

That focus on immediate benefits is even more intense at a publicly traded company, she points out, which is why she sees hazards ahead for Musk and Tesla employees. Making the future “good”—to use Musk’s term—is not a quarterly project, as a slim minority of private-sector companies have come to appreciate.

If Ballard’s comparison is apt, Tesla’s overworked employees may also be more likely to make mistakes or worse, because advancing a cause can’t protect people from the dangers that come from not respecting the body’s need for time to recuperate. Choosing to sacrifice work-life balance, instead of revenue, is bad math.

Meaningfulness can’t be enforced 

Musk is not alone in emphasizing mission and meaningfulness. His rhetoric in today’s note can also be read as part of a fashionable management trend: the interest in harnessing the human need to feel fulfilled on a spiritual level to better motivate employees.

If that sounds like a dark ploy, that’s because it often is. In a 2017 paper titled “The mismanaged soul: Existential labor and the erosion of meaningful work,” a team of UK organizational behavior scholars picked apart the research on this tactic, and found “the active management of meaningful work can be used cynically as a means of enhancing motivation, performance and commitment” and that some companies have used ”the rhetoric of service to a higher ideal to mislead members about the nature of their work, what the organization can offer employees, and about the societal value of the organization, in pursuit of the profit motive.”

The authors, led by management professor Catherine Bailey (then of the University of Sussex, now of King’s College London), also note that meaning doesn’t have to come from saving the world. Inviting employees to align themselves with the greater cause of an entire organization, as Musk has done, is one option, but employees also have been successfully nudged to find meaning in their individual tasks, their particular role, and in the sense of belonging to something like a family at work.

Good things can come from companies tapping into the common need for a higher calling—productivity levels go up and people feel better about themselves, the paper concludes. So leveraging this form of employee loyalty or pride—through rhetoric, for example—is not dodgy in and of itself, when the work holds authentic meaning, but it becomes fraught when the cause is manufactured or misleading.

When that happens, and research has also found that employees easily detect such cases, employee trust and engagement is eroded and the staff becomes less committed. Some individuals may perform a type of “emotional labor,” performing the act of buying into the company’s narrative, which is exhausting. Yet another possibility is that rather than leave a job, an employee will unconsciously recalibrate behaviors and feelings to better align with the company’s definition of meaning, even when it counters their own.

For instance, believing that it’s okay for a fabulously wealthy CEO to lay off thousands of people and put extra time pressures on those left behind—because that’s the way capitalism works, or because the still-expanding company has had a rocky year, or because the health of the planet is at stake—could be a short-term form of self-preservation, one that might ultimately lead to long-term burnout.

But while Tesla’s mission is indisputably connected to a noble goal to protect the environment and maybe even save humanity, there’s also a case to be made for answering that calling without burdening employees any more than you already have.