The Value of Being Intellectually Curious
AKA The Two Types of Bosses
I know it seems like every other edition of this newsletter is about the implosion of Twitter, but what can I say: the platform I’ve built most of my online life around is going down in flames and it’s happening at an astonishing speed. Of course it’s on my mind and I’m going to want to write about it!
For the latest news on the subject, I’d recommend you subscribe toby Casey Newton, who has been crushing it on this beat. In a recent issue, Casey describes how some engineers were summarily fired after daring to criticize Musk on Twitter of all places:
Some of the roughly two dozen employees who were fired had simply expressed sympathy for three workers who Musk had fired for criticizing him the day before.
The new purge, which followed layoffs of 50 percent of Twitter’s full-time workforce and an 80 percent reduction in its number of contractors, reflects a growing paranoia in Musk’s inner circle, according to eight current and former employees. Musk has become obsessed with the idea that his employees might sabotage the site, they said, leading to near-total freeze on writing and shipping code and firings of anyone suspected of being disloyal.
The work environment sounds toxic and brutal. Just today, Musk offered workers a choice between taking severance and leaving the company or committing to a more “hardcore” work culture. A solid choice for US-based software engineers — less great for people on visas or from other locations with complicated employment laws. (Also: Working your ass off for a company is typically accepted when there’s upside in the form of equity or other compensation. What’s the upside for people who are willing to sleep in the office for Elon?)
But laws or rules of any kind have never stood in the way for Musk. The Los Angeles Times did a staggering run down of all the ways Musk has treated his workers like shit over the years. I’d heard about many of these stories over the years but assembled all in one place like this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this classic line from George Costanza:
Charlie Warzel also does a great job summarizing the dilemma the site finds itself in:
What is mind-bending about Musk’s tenure is that it is extremely predictable while feeling almost inconceivably absurd. Musk is doing exactly what you’d expect a billionaire who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room to do if he bought a social network with almost zero understanding of how to run and moderate it (and zero curiosity to learn about the history).
Days before Musk bought Twitter, I spoke to numerous trust-and-safety officers and former social-media executives, who all suggested that Musk might take over, fire crucial staff, and watch as the social network’s infrastructure began to quietly (and not so quietly) falter. That is exactly what is happening. Those same people told me his ego and erratic management style would alienate employees and/or cause them to quit. That has happened.
The two types of bosses
I spent about a decade in the corporate world and I’ve seen just about every type of re-org possible. I’ve seen excellent people get laid off just for being unlucky, and I’ve seen incompetent, abusive folks stay at the top of the pack for way too long.
I remember one particularly brutal reshuffle. A person pretty high up had decided they didn’t like the way business was being done in our division and had initiated a massive purge. A new division head was installed, dozens of people were being terminated and replaced by those loyal to the new guard, and many of the remaining workers were fleeing for safer pastures.
I visited the office a manager several levels above me. She’d just been told her services were no longer needed and she would have to find another job. She’d been with the company for less than one year. It’s always challenging when a re-org takes place but more galling in this case was the attitude of some of the newcomers. They spoke derisively about her efforts and suggested many ideas that had already been tried and rejected due to lack of feasibility or resources.
I asked this manager what her thoughts were about the whole situation. She gave me an analogy I’ll never forget: “Working at this job is like washing up on a desert island. You spend years trying to build things - a food system, running water, etc. and you do the best that you can. But every few years a huge wave washes everyone off the island and a new group of people show up. They think they can build things better than anyone before them, but fundamentally they’re dealing with the exact same resources as everyone that came before.”
In my time, I’ve seen two types of bosses: Those who are intellectually curious and those who are not. Those who assume there’s a reason things are done the way they are and seek to understand why, vs. those who just believe everyone before them was incompetent and therefore just waiting for a bold new visionary to share their brilliance with them.
Intellectually curious bosses explore. They talk with their employees, get to know them, and figure out what constraints they are working under. They emphathize. They don’t assume they have all the answers. In the end, this style actually empowers their employees because it assumes good faith and competence on their part. And yes, improvements can be made, sometimes even dramatic ones. But knowledge (and sometimes even respect) of what has come before becomes a critical part of bringing everyone on board with the new vision.
Bosses that aren’t intellectually curious rule by fiat. They ignore and override the objections of their underlings. They disempower people by assuming their incompetence. They instill fear by getting rid of people who don’t share their convictions. And look, I’m not going to say these people never succeed - they sometimes do so spectacularly. But I’d wager that in general, in the long run, they don’t do as well as the other kind of boss because ultimately they run into a fundamental law of physics: Working together as a team is often more efficient than working by yourself.
If you need to be convinced of which approach is better, I’d encourage you to just check out what’s happening at Twitter right now.
Stuff I’ve made
In case you missed it, Patrick Willems and I did a LIVE recording of Decoding TV from Hawai’i! Watch it on YouTube below.
Also on Decoding TV, I discussed season 2 episode 3 of The White Lotus with Roxana Hadadi. Listen to the episode here.
Over on The Filmcast, we reviewed the highly anticipated Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. A real mixed bag this film was.