“Your Work Is Shit”: Steve Jobs on Negative Feedback

Steve Jobs inspired fanatical loyalty among people who worked with him, but he was also famously difficult to work with. I remember thinking as I read Isaacson’s biography, “Yep, Jobs sure could be an asshole. Doesn’t appear to have been very evolved when it comes to human relations…”

However, after watching Cringely’s fascinating 1995 “lost interview” with Steve Jobs, I’m feeling considerably more charitable. (It’s available to stream on Netflix and iTunes.) About forty minutes into the interview, Cringely asks Jobs about his often harsh leadership style. Specifically, he asks Jobs, “What does it mean when you tell someone their work is shit?”

Uh, it usually means their work is shit. Sometimes it means, ‘I think your work is shit, and I’m wrong.’ But usually it means their work is not anywhere near good enough.

Let’s hear Jobs’ justification for treating people so harshly. He begins by saying that he works incredibly hard to find the best, most talented people; for example, everyone on the  team he put together to develop the Macintosh was an “A player.” He then observes that these A players rarely have the luxury of working only with other A players, and when they get the chance they absolutely love it. (That sure rings true.)  Oh yeah, and they can achieve greatness in their work. So Jobs assembled and fiercely protected “A teams” because he knew it was a key to making insanely great products.

Now he addresses Cringely’s question specifically.  Here’s the thing about the really good people,

When you’ve get really good people, they know they’re really good, and you don’t have to baby people’s egos so much. And what really matters is the work. And everybody knows that: That’s all that matters—is the work. . . . And the most important thing, I think, you can do for somebody who’s really good and who’s really being counted on is to point out to them when their work isn’t good enough.

This seems to me a brilliant and uncommonly thoughtful response to the question. I’m reminded of a post I wrote on the virtues of negative feedback. There I discussed studies showing that novices prefer (and should mostly be given) positive feedback, while “A players” or masters actually prefer negative feedback because it’s more useful. And for the very reasons Jobs gives: they already know they’re good, so while praise may be pleasant, it isn’t telling them anything new. It doesn’t help them excel in their work, whereas good criticism does, and it becomes more valuable, and rare to find, the more expert you become.

It’s a testament to Jobs’ brilliance that his reply succinctly leads to this point. The interview is riveting from beginning to end, not least because Jobs has that enviable capacity of genius to penetrate with simple clarity to the heart of matters.

One caveat, however. I suspect Jobs protested too much when he insisted that all that matters is the work. If that were true, then his sometimes abusive rhetoric might be wholly justified—which is of course one reason he mentioned it.

But relationships also matter, as Jobs knew very well: the “A team” dynamic he so carefully nurtured was a deep satisfaction in its own right, in addition to being a source of great cooperative accomplishments. Friendships made in these exhilaratingly demanding circumstances, like those made between warriors in combat, are usually the best we experience. The friendships themselves are even part of the greatness of “the work”, or product, that Jobs rather facilely claimed is all that matters.

As I explain in my book, serious and forceful corrections are sometimes necessary among friends, but these times are rare—or ought to be—and the rhetorical mood should be nuanced. Shouting at someone, “your work is shit!” may be true, but  rhetorically nuanced it’s not. Regardless of whether someone has the ego strength to handle it, such behavior shows insufficient regard for the conditions of cooperation and friendship. More fully enlightened masters know and speak better than this. Usually. But that’s a caveat for another day.

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