Elon Musk recommends walking out of unproductive meetings

Meetings can resemble joining a vegan picnic at the pond with duck liver pate. There’s zero value to add to the discussion, which seems to be going in circles either way. People keep walking in and out. A ringtone goes off ever so often. Only a few pay attention, the rest is caressing their smartphones.

Elon Musk evidently has little patience for such productivity leeches. In a recent note to staff, he encouraged them to walk out of a meeting if they weren’t adding any value, or put the phone down on a conference call.

I totally get it.

According to the Pareto principle, only 20% of what’s being said in a meeting really helps to get the job done. That’s probably quite a generous assessment. I do recall meetings that felt more like trolling the 0.2% effectiveness mark.

Walking out may seem like an extreme but reasonable response to the boardroom abyss. Some businesses aim to find a middle-ground. This could mean capping the length to less than 30 minutes, or replacing the common sit-down-on-a-chair-and-rot scenario with standing sessions and round robin discussions.

But, let’s pause here for a moment. Is collaboration and productivity in the corporate world merely about exchanging information and making good decisions?     

The productivity myth


Productivity never happens in isolation. It unfolds when a number of factors bond to form right environment. One of them is having a network of high-quality individuals. Regardless of how skilled you are, there are times when you’ll get more accomplished working with others. Many of the best leaders owe a large portion of their success to colleagues, friends, and mentors. When the need arises, such people will be generous with their time, feedback and resources.

Typical workplaces, oozing with office politics, hostility and individualism have no favours to offer here. What’s needed to attract the right people runs counter-intuitive to the general drift of the culture:

  • We make ourselves available, physically and mentally.
  • We choose human interaction over virtual communication whenever possible.
  • We show interest and appreciation in what matters to others – irrespective of our personal views!
  • We listen more than we speak.

No matter how gut-wrenching sitting in a meeting without progress may feel, that feeling will be a lot worse for the speaker/organiser. They’re still left with the job to be done; they are dealing with whatever apathy and distraction that’s unfolding.

It’s easy to add to their misery by following the common drift and switching off. By doing so, however, we miss out on an opportunity to support and encourage them. Why does that matter? Because that person might return the kindness when it’s sorely needed. Being open to possibility is rising above the present state where all that matters is today’s busy schedule. Someone who continues to listen, remains open-minded and is willing to make the best of a bad situation, may be all that’s needed to fix a broken meeting.

The room was already empty


In today’s world, there’s no need to physically exit a meeting. We’re already doing it – all the time. It happens when we pull out the phone to respond to ‘that very urgent’ email, or check what’s new on social media. It happens when we worry about everything we still have to do or things that happened recently instead of listening to what’s going on.

Elon Musk got it wrong by implying that adding value merely revolves around tangibles like commenting, speaking, presenting or sharing information. He got it wrong by overlooking the increasing loss of human connection and the consequences thereof.

Here, in South Africa, there’s also an uncomfortable truth about walking out. A recent report by the Employment Equity Commission reveals that white South Africans hold almost 70% of top management positions. Non-white females account for a mere 7.3% at that level. As long as these dynamics remain, those on the fringes simply don’t have the privilege to walk out. It’s a lot easier for a male to do so without being stereotyped.

Ironically, meetings are the only time when human interaction happens across the wider business. Maybe only 20% of what’s being said at a meeting matters but the remaining 80% are the domain of image and perception. Some attendees won’t know each other from a bar of soap. All they have to form a mental image comes from hearsay, emails and those rather painful 60 minutes.

Physical cues, such as posture, facial expression, even subtle gestures, signal presence and investment to the speaker, or the absence thereof. They’re the some of the few means to show others that their concerns are appreciated.

Honing active listening and nonverbal communication skills requires practice and consistency – a lot of it. Let’s think twice before exiting the training ground in the name of productivity. It’s more helpful to be selective about which meetings to attend. But when we do, it’s worth it being fully present, whether we end up saying something or not.


All opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect those of any organisations I am associated with.


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