Have you seen ‘Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview’? It gives fascinating new insights into the tech titan.

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.

Jobs’ explains why he was so tough with people. 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. (I’m sure we can all accept that is true.)  They can achieve greatness in their work when surrounded by other A players. Jobs put together and fiercely protected Macs “A-teams” because he knew it was a key to making the innovative and uniquely great products.

He went on to further explain.  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…they’re not… their work isn’t good enough. 

             (Note the stumble)

And to do it clearly and articulate why to get them back on track. And you need to do it in a way that doesn’t call into question your confidence in their abilities, but leaves not too much room for interpretation that the work that they have done isn’t good enough to support the goal of the team. And that’s a hard thing to do.

Although I would never suggest to a leader to use the language that Steve used I do respect the direct and purposeful way he delivered feedback. I love how he says “do it in a way that doesn’t call into question your respect for them but leaves no room for interpretation”. Genius.

Note also the stumble that I highlighted above. He has quickly corrected himself to stay that it’s the behaviour and work outcome that is the subject of his harsh feedback. Not the person. This is very important for feedback. If you criticise a person then gear up for a fight. If you criticise their work then that’s something they can fix. If you’re too harsh either way they may still tell you to get lost.

I’m not going to instruct you to give feedback in a soft way. Be compassionate and empathetic, and be direct about work performance. Also be super clear if the work is, in fact, sh!t. Then help them to get better.

Being an authentic leader is not all rainbows and fairies. It is often extraordinarily tough. You will give feedback to your team and if you are not able to deliver it in a way that they can hear it then you and the rest of the team will suffer.

The goal is to deliver clear and consistent feedback that builds people’s abilities and challenges them to grow. If you fluff about trying to be nice, then you’re not giving your best to that person.

Kim Scott’s concept of radical candour is in action here with how Steve helps his people grow.

Radical candour has two essential elements:

  • Care personally, AND
  • Challenge directly.

It’s not one without the other. Steve definitely had a reputation for harsh leadership but I do wonder if that reputation was spread by people who were either not ‘A-players’ and therefore didn’t grow or were too sensitive to accept direct challenges.

When you read Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson you meet many of the A-players who loved and respected Jobs. They say he was tough and they love him because he made them better, and vice versa.

If you don’t care about them personally then challenging them directly will come off as harsh. If you haven’t built trust in your relationships then sharing hard stuff will be only that hard. When you care personally about the individual, you care about their growth. You also care about how they are able to contribute to the work and you wish them to have the job and self-satisfaction that comes with producing extraordinary outcomes.

Have a think about how you are building your team. Are they A-players? Could they be if you put more effort into helping them grow?

Take a leaf from Steve’s book. Give direct honest feedback that helps people to be better and achieve. But also… don’t be a jerk about it, avoid the “your work is sh!t” statements and come up with a way that is still direct but perhaps a bit more compassionate. This isn’t the 80s after all.

If you want to check out the documentary you can watch on iTunes or here.

Author Michelle Holland. 

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