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Emotions are at the Core of Firing People, Even at Netflix

Introduction

Jonathan Fries

Jonathan Fries

My name is Jonathan Fries. I work for Exadel, Inc. Exadel - https://www.exadel.com - is a great company, with great people all around the world. I currently lead the Boulder, CO, USA office.


Leadership Mindfulness

Emotions are at the Core of Firing People, Even at Netflix

Posted by Jonathan Fries on .
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Leadership Mindfulness

Emotions are at the Core of Firing People, Even at Netflix

Posted by Jonathan Fries on .

I've been fired from a company I worked for. I've written about it in the past here.

I've also fired a lot of people over the years.

I don't enjoy it. It's not fun. And it's probably going to be one of the worst days of somebody's life. That's how you should treat it. Try to be as humane as you can be.

But I don't have any problem with it - it's a necessary and valuable part of how business gets done. But if you think that you can do it without emotion I think you're missing something valuable.

I came across this article today about Netflix and their CEO, which is what brought all this up:

https://www.businessinsider.com/netflix-ceo-reed-hastings-used-keeper-test-to-fire-product-chief-2018-10

Having a "keeper test" seems like a reasonable thing to do. I wouldn't do it the way that Netflix does, but that's their business. They're a successful company. How they keep their top performers, get rid of people who don't work, and put out an amazing product is their business. More power to them.

My problem with the article is that they say they do this without emotion. If you think you're making decisions without emotion you're not just wrong, you're deluding yourself about how decision making even works. You have to have emotions to make decisions, it's part of it.

If you go out and Google that topic you'll find lots of people saying that you should avoid emotions in decision making. And if you read the articles, they're right - you should avoid making decisions when you're really angry about something and when you're feeling euphoric - those aren't good states to make decisions in. But that's different than saying there's no emotion involved in decisions or you're completely analytical, that just doesn't work.

The trick is to look at data, be analytical, but be realistic about what you're feeling and why.

Often, business leaders have to make decisions with incomplete data.

If you're totally without emotions or gut feel, what are you going to do if you have to make decisions in absence of data?

The best book on this subject is Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence - specifically Chapter 3 in the section "Why Emotions are Important in Business".

When Netflix execs say they're firing people without emotion I suspect they really mean they are making these decisions, "without sentimental attachment to things that happened in the past and regardless of what my relationship may be to the person who I'm thinking of firing." That's a mouthful, but it is a lot more meaningful.

So, if I believe that is what they're really saying, why does it matter what was said?

It matters for 2 reasons:

  1. What they said shows a misunderstanding of emotion and it's role in decision making. If you say things like that you are wearing blinders about what emotions you're feeling.
  2. Saying that you make these decisions without emotion feeds the notion that decision makers are robots. I think that is dangerous for company culture and human beings.

If this is true, then they are using some emotions at Netflix to make these choices. What emotions are they (or should they be) using?

They're using emotions that derive from their commitment to the business and its vision. They're trying to build the greatest entertainment company in the world, they really care about that, and they're willing to get rid of people who don't quite live up to that ideal.

Those are probably pretty strong emotions. Strong enough, even, for you to fire an employee who was once successful and now is struggling.

But you definitely aren't making such decisions without emotions.

The question I would ask, but to which I do not know the answer is, "Is one of those emotions fear?" It's hinted at in the article.

I doubt the CEO is doing these things out of fear, though you never know. The rest of the organization could easily be affected by fear of "looking soft" as the article says or by fear of losing their jobs.

If fear is a big part of the emotional cocktail, that is not healthy in the long run.

Whatever the formula is, it seems to have worked thus far.

As it relates to my second point, there is a sense that the ideal CEO is someone who is able to make these decisions like a computer or robot. Does that match someone's ideal? I've worked with a lot of executives and I can't remember one who wanted to be a robot.

Visionaries, yes. Great leaders, yes. Builders of great companies, yes.

Even some who saw firing as a key component of building workplace culture - by which I mean they would never keep people around who didn't work hard and contribute at a high level. But this was not because they were cruel, and not even because they were ruthless in pursuit of efficiency.

No, it was because they responded so significantly to those who gathered around them and shared their vision. The leaders understood the emotional toll it took on those hard working, results-driving people to have to prop-up someone who couldn't cut it.

Non-contributing and failing team members can drain the life out of a team quickly. Suddenly hard fought gains are lost and the team is struggling.

This is to say, emotions were at the very core of why those business leaders chose to remove some team members.

So, I understand the sound byte. I wouldn't have said it that way and it is not what he meant, but I think a lot of people will read that article and see the CEO of Netflix acting "without emotion" and take that to heart.

It's wrong and misguided. I hope that at least some people stop and think about that.

What's a better approach? This is off the cuff, but I'll throw out some ideas about how to deal with emotion in a firing decision process:

  1. What emotions are impacting this decision I'm about to make? Be clear with yourself - emotions are impacting you, which ones are they?
  2. How does this person's performance impact those around them?
  3. Is this person a fountain (someone who brings energy to those around them) or a drain (someone who sucks energy away from teams)?
  4. Are these challenges temporary (life-change driven or tied to a new position) or permanent (a person is constitutionally unfit for a job or role)?

On this last point, it is important to note that people rarely change. And even if you think someone can change, can they change in time to make a difference? The odds are against them changing. Do you want to base your business plan around the need for a person to fundamentally alter their behavior?

It's difficult to change, though I have seen it happen.

But if you've put a person into the position in which they're struggling you owe it to them to at least ask the question.

All of these things relate to emotions. Emotions are important and we can't make decisions without them.

Even as an executive you need to be human. You can't help it anyway.

Acknowledge what you're feeling and why. The most successful executives I've worked with all understood exactly what's impacting them and they have been good at communicating it to others.

They don't let it blind them. They manage it and use it to their advantage.

Jonathan Fries

Jonathan Fries

http://jonathanfries.net

My name is Jonathan Fries. I work for Exadel, Inc. Exadel - https://www.exadel.com - is a great company, with great people all around the world. I currently lead the Boulder, CO, USA office.

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