Recently, Wired published a blistering report that made Elon Musk look astonishingly bad--once again.

A bit of background first. In 2016, Musk faced unbelievable pressure to mass-produce emissions-free Model 3 vehicles in an effort to reverse "humanity's addiction to fossil fuels."

While he succeeded in that Herculean task last year (Tesla hit its target of producing 5,000 Model 3s in one week, surprising Wall Street with profits of $312 million), he apparently failed in reversing his own humanity's penchant to rage against his workers.

Usher in journalist Charles Duhigg. Over the last half of 2018, Duhigg spoke with dozens of current and former Tesla employees for the incriminating Wired piece that he wrote. 

What he found can be encapsulated in a statement by a former Tesla executive, who told Duhigg that "everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon."

Elon's "rage firings"

During "production hell" at Tesla's Gigafactory plant in Nevada, things were already tense when Musk noticed something wrong with one of the production line's mechanized modules. Shortly after, he had one of his most epic episodes of "rage firings."

At 10 o'clock on a Saturday evening (a price you pay for working at Tesla), Musk called over a young engineer who had put in 13-hour days, seven days a week, for over a year.

According to Duhigg's sources who saw it unfold, the exchange went like this:

Musk: "Hey, buddy, this doesn't work! Did you do this?"

Not sure what was transpiring and having never spoken to Musk before, the engineer was confused at Musk's anger or what Musk was really asking.

Engineer: "You mean, program the robot? Or design that tool?"

Musk (shouting): "Did you f***ing do this?" 

Engineer: "I'm not sure what you're referring to?" 

Musk (shouting): "You're a f***ing idiot! Get the f***k out and don't come back!"

Bewildered, the young engineer, who was set for a positive review with his manager the following week, left his post to make sense of what just happened. Moments later, his manager informed him that he was fired on Musk's orders.

Tesla disputed Wired's version of events, calling it "overly-dramatic and sensationalized."

Personally, I don't think the recent bout of reports about "rage firings" and blowouts are a fair depiction of the character that is Elon Musk.

I think it's the emotional state of a sleep-deprived, stressed-to-the-max cultural icon with perfectionist standards and the weight of the world's expectations on his shoulders. And one whose demeanors are game for media scrutiny and public crucifixion.

It doesn't make Elon Musk a monster. But it does make him less likable. Like all human beings, we have to find a way to manage our emotions and bring out our best selves to face challenging circumstances.

Tesla's PR people offered us a hint of the kinder side of Musk in their response to the Wired article, telling Business Insider that "Elon cares very deeply about the people with whom he works--Tesla owes its existence to its employees."

How things could have played out differently for Musk

So that begs the question: How could he have cared better for that young engineer--the one who lost his whole livelihood in a blinding a flash of Elon-rage? While not a cure-all solution to every behavioral problem we face in the workplace, a higher state of emotional intelligence could have been a game changer.

By exercising the strength of emotional intelligence, here's how anyone in any leadership position at any level can avoid an episode like Musk's and make things right.

1. Respond rather than react.

So often we react and get defensive when faced with an emotionally charged situation or a difficult co-worker or employee. In high-EQ leaders, once they get a handle on the root cause of a negative emotion (what's pushing their buttons), they typically respond with a more patient "keep calm" approach. They'll process a situation about to go south, get perspective, listen without judgment, and hold back from reacting head on.

2. Think before you speak.

There's a nifty conversational technique called the "six-second pause," which is used by people with emotional intelligence to gather their thoughts before they speak. Why six seconds? The chemicals of emotion inside our brains and bodies usually last about six seconds. During a heated exchange, if we can pause for a short moment, the flood of chemicals being produced slows down. When you are frustrated or upset, before you escalate to an F-bombing blowout, this precious pause helps you to quickly assess the costs and benefits of your actions and make more careful choices.

3. Practice more self-control.

Self-control is a learned skill to help you be more present, calmer, and focused during times of high stress. It's a necessary emotional skill with a long-term payoff. Best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, the leading expert on emotional intelligence, says this about people with self-control: "Reasonable people--the ones who maintain control over their emotions--are the people who can sustain safe, fair environments. In these settings, drama is very low and productivity is very high. Top performers flock to these organizations and are not apt to leave them."

4. Take in the whole picture.

Because people with emotional intelligence operate with a high degree of self-awareness, they're able to see both sides of an issue and tap into their feelings and those of others to choose a different, and better, outcome. Quoting Daniel Goleman again, he says this about self-awareness: "If you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far."

Published on: Mar 21, 2019
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