How Elon Musk Turns Failure into Awesome

February 6, 2020
5 Min Read
Photo by
The Boston Globe

Nobody likes negative feedback. It’s well.. Negative. Uncomfortable. Sometimes downright painful. So we tend to be averse to receiving any feedback that might make us feel this way. But avoiding and disregarding negative feedback can mean missed opportunities for growth and learning. It might also mean you’re less resilient to changes, because you're not as willing to listen or adapt.

Elon Musk Hearts Negative Feedback

Musk views listening to negative feedback as a key factor in his success. He actively and openly seeks it from friends and colleagues, by continually asking what he has done wrong and what he can improve on.

“Pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends.”

– Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla

The Cybertruck "Fail"  

At Tesla, Musk and his team have faced many challenges and a lot of criticism: The government launched several safety probes in response to a fatal crash, and batteries catching fire in S and X models, and there were reliability issues with the Model 3.

More recently, Tesla’s new Cybertruck demo in November 2019, did not go as planned when Tesla designer, Franz von Holzhausen, lightly threw a steel ball at the passenger window. Instead of glancing off as expected, the supposedly bulletproof glass cracked and shattered in front of a stunned audience of thousands and a host of international media. (This was also after he had just hit it with a sledge hammer and the glass had remained perfectly intact). In the footage, Musk himself is visibly surprised, and heard to mutter an expletive.

How Musk Owned It

Many CEOs would view the underperformance of a product demo as an abject failure and PR disaster. Musk actively embraced the criticism. He didn’t avoid commenting on it or downplay it. He was upfront and open, taking to Twitter to explain what happened.

He was also quick to point out the upside: Exposing a flaw in their soon to be released Cybertruck, meant Tesla could go back to the drawing board and improve on its original design. A win-win for Tesla and its customers. To show the extent of his willingness to embrace negative feedback, and his sense of humor about it, he even had shirts made depicting the shattered window. You can buy one for $35.

Elon Musk broadcasts his response to negative feedback (Photo credit: Tesla)
You don't have to advertise your negative feedback on a t-shirt but Elon Musk did (Photo Credit: Tesla)

You Don't Have to Put it on a T-Shirt

A t-shirt advertising a major design flaw in a soon to be released product, is not the action of someone avoiding responsibility or criticism. It clearly demonstrates a willingness to listen and embrace change with humor and grace. The underlying message being: We know something went wrong and it’s okay because now we can fix it. This is also a great example of design thinking. Musk has given his team permission to fail in order to improve the overall product and outcome.

How it Impacted Tesla

Apart from an unanticipated surprise, this incident hasn’t had a negative impact on Tesla’s Cybertruck sales, or even Tesla’s stock. They’ve so far received pre-orders for over 200,000 Cybertrucks. Though this may not be a major indication of actual sales as the pre-orders only require a $100 fully-refundable deposit. These pre-orders have, however, given them 20 million dollars in revenue at their disposal. Tesla’s stock has also hit record highs this month. To date, it's reached over $925 per share and its value is up over 195% in the past year.  So there's definitely something to be said for owning negative feedback.

"I ask specifically what am I doing wrong. And if I’ve asked that a few times of people, then they will start automatically telling me without me having to always ask the question.”

Learning to Embrace Negative Feedback

Embracing criticism, particularly from teammates, isn’t easy. It’s deeply ingrained in us to want to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. But like most things, it only gets easier with time and practice.

A great way to start is make it a part of your team’s regular weekly schedule. Such as Feedback Friday, which we at Matter even practice ourselves. A good approach is to start with the positive and lead gently into the negative by focusing on the “room for improvement” angle.

Turning Negative into Amazing

Remember: Not taking it personally and taking positive courses of action, is what gives us personal and professional growth. It can also improve analytical thinking by allowing us to reflect on methods or workflow practices that perhaps aren't working as efficiently as they could, and think about how to make them better.

The other added bonus is negative feedback opens the lines of communication, by helping to build candor and rapport with fellow teammates.  Open communication has the knock-on effect of increasing productivity and job satisfaction.

You might not want to make a t-shirt advertising your mistakes, but you can still learn from them.

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