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Avoid Elon Musk-Style Firing Sprees by Having Hard Conversations Sooner

Confronting employees who misbehave is never fun (or easy), but company leaders can't afford to ignore bad behavior until it creates larger issues.

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In December 2018, Wired published a shocking account of Elon Musk's infamous firing sprees during Tesla's Model 3 production struggles. According to the article, Musk's frustration with low productivity and failure to meet standards led to the firing of some 700 employees -- many of whom never knew why they got the boot. Tesla hit several of its lofty goals last year, but with a workforce motivated by fear, will the company's success eventually crumble under the stress of the employees creating it?

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Musk's behavior is the polar opposite of how most managers handle unproductive employees. In many cases, managers allow bad behavior to continue for too long before stepping in to do damage control. Musk's unpredictable behavior is not ideal, yet managers who allow employees to break rules with impunity may be just as bad.

Related: Straight Talk: How To Have Good Difficult Conversations

Leaders who fail to address bad behavior tacitly endorse such behavior to other workers. If one person gets away with late starts or low-key insubordination, the team will emulate the behavior (or think less of the manager who allows it). Most managers can't get away with Musk's affinity for firing while maintaining a full staff for long. However, those who struggle with confrontation must learn to have harder conversations.

Passive-aggressive leadership pitfalls.

Throughout several decades of agency work, I've worked with managers with a host of different leadership styles. Those who didn't enjoy confrontation perceived their passivity as lenience. What they failed to realize? Respectful confrontation is a skill, not a style.

According to research published in Harvard Business Review, 21 percent of surveyed managers avoid giving negative feedback. When an employee believes her behavior is acceptable, however, she won't change it. I've seen it myself: The longer a manager waits to provide feedback, the worse the fallout becomes. Good employees with bad habits eventually reach a point where the only recourse is separation.

Companies, no matter their maturity or influence, can't afford to lose talented workers. To maintain good relationships, managers must overcome their fears and call out employees who fail to meet expectations.

It pays to master how to provide negative feedback. The ability to have tough conversations with employees is a skill, not a personality trait. Managers must overcome their fears to keep their workforces happy, productive and respectful.

Use the following tips to make hard conversations a little easier:

1. Plan to have private, comfortable talks.

Just because the subject matter is difficult doesn't mean the conversation needs to be. For a friendlier atmosphere, ditch the cliché of the closed office door and desk as a divider.

Find a space that's private and unimposing. Pick somewhere controllable, such as a meeting room or secluded break area. Know exactly what kind of feedback to provide and what kind of outcome the conversation should produce. Listen to feedback from the employee, but remember: This is an opportunity to correct behavior, not a time to accept excuses.

And when it comes to wrapping up a tough conversation, Bill Benjamin of the Institute for Health and Human Potential tells managers not to avoid it. If the employee gets uncomfortable or sullen at the end of the talk, don't back off from the plan. Clearly communicate what needs to be said to avoid having the same conversation twice.

Related: Stop Avoiding It: 4 Tips for Delivering Tough Feedback

2. Respond appropriately to emotional reactions.

A recent MIT Sloan Management Review study found that roughly 20 percent of participants said they "have never, in their entire careers, had a single boss who managed negative emotions effectively." Tough conversations between managers and employees will happen, and negative emotions are par for the course. So if it must be said, commit to saying it.

Employees need and want constructive feedback, but in the moment, they might not like what they hear. When someone responds emotionally, acknowledge the feelings. Be clear that this conversation arose from a commitment to the offending employee's success.

Reassure the employee that the emotions are safe and understandable. Watch for signs of shutdown: crossed arms or avoided eye contact. Pull the other person back into the conversation if possible, but if not, provide some breathing room for a minute.

3. Specify the issues at hand.

Never start sentences in this conversation with phrases such as "I feel" or "I think." Come to the table with concrete examples of the behaviors that need to change.

Consider this example: found that 46 percent of workers resent colleagues who consistently arrive late. To bring up chronic lateness with an offending employee, be versed on the exact days -- recently -- that she missed morning start times (and by how much). Sometimes, employees may be so used to their behavior that they don't realize how bad the problem has become.

Instead of limiting the conversation to the rules, talk about the effects the behavior has on other employees, clients or quality of work. Highlight the specific change desired -- in this case, timely arrival -- and outline the conditions for a follow-up conversation.

4. Plan follow-ups to implement change.

Never let a conversation end with blame or excuses on either end. Wrap up with a specific action plan, as well as a scheduled follow-up meeting, to discuss how said plan played out. Get a clear commitment from the employee to correct her behavior. Otherwise, the meeting may feel like a talking-to and not a call to change.

Some employees may be hostile to the prospect of change. In those cases, lean on the plan from step one. What would the future of the company look like if this employee continued to break the rules?

Related: The Secret to Hard Conversations With Staff

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently fired Jonathan Friedland, the company's chief communication officer of six years, who used a racial slur in at least two meetings. Perhaps Hastings could have sent Friedland to diversity training or taken less severe measures. However, the damage to the company's image and the rest of the workforce would have been too much.

At the end of the conversation, thank the employee for understanding the importance of the talk. These moments are admittedly the least fun times to be a manager, but they're also the most important times to step up and lead. Practice makes perfect, so tackle bad behavior early and often to keep teams running smoothly.

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