“This (your work) is shit!”

“This (your work) is shit!”

If Steve Jobs’ had a show like Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” his equivalent of Trump’s “You’re Fired” might have been “This is shit!”

In Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, that’s how Jobs often responded to any product, service, presentation or argument that didn’t meet his high standards, and he wasn’t shy about whose heart he stabbed with this pointy pronouncement.  He bled waiters, hotel clerks, employees, friends, or visiting executives.

Clearly, Jobs was not a nice guy, but yet he got amazing results from his people.

Is there something to be learned from his brand of criticism?

Three things stand out for me

1) Straight talk works …

The first is that honesty works.   Things just move a lot faster and work better when people are straight.

Compared to workplaces where people routinely offer false complements e.g., “nice job” to avoid hurt feelings and confrontations; straight talk yields better performance because breakdowns are quickly acknowledged which allow for solutions to be more quickly discussed, agreed on and executed.

People who are clearly focused on business results and their own professional development appreciate straight talk because they can more quickly course-correct and learn.

Jobs knew what he wanted and told you directly when you missed his mark, which leads to the second lesson.  Harsh feedback — even Jobs’ verbal beatings—only get results…

2) … when people are lit up by a shared vision

His people shared his burning passion for what he was creating.  They felt included and part of the only elite team that could make it happen.

Having Jobs wreak havoc in meetings only served to focus them on what was flawed, missing, weak or incomplete so they could produce great products.

Straight talk especially the brutal Steve Jobs variety can never work with people who don’t have a shared vision.  When people aren’t sharing the journey to a common vision, criticism is more likely to be taken personally and lead to discord and dysfunction.

But to withstand Jobs-like feedback a shared vision is not enough. People must also be confident, talented and willing to learn.

3) …and are A-players

The third learning is that only smart, self-confident people can deal with harsh feedback.

Brilliant people worked with Steve.  They could handle his rough edges.  Not everyone could.

Many, many people who shared his vision were devastated by his style and either quit or were fired and those that remained were not only battle-hardened, but committed to his vision to make a ‘dent in the universe.’

They could deal with Jobs’ pepper-balm communication style because they were committed enough to put in the emotional ante to play a very high-stakes game.

Steve felt that A players wanted to work with A players and I believe these are some of the qualities of A players.   A-players either don’t have such thin skin or they recover fast.

The lesson for you

The lesson for anyone inspired by Jobs is not to emulate his verbal assaults but to take what works from his particular success-cocktail that you can emulate for good effect.  I think they are:

  1. Be committed to something big and don’t compromise.
  2. Don’t give up till you belong to a high-performance team that shares your commitment to a common vision.  Belonging to a top-class team instills pride and sustains the passion for changing the world, for putting your own “dent in the universe”.
  3. Don’t take any feedback personally, but look for the nuggets of truth that you can learn from.  Develop the confidence in yourself to own your mistakes and shortcomings and seek the truth from bosses, colleagues, customers, etc.  That’s how you’ll learn and eventually achieve amazing things.


Photo by Thomas Rousing Photography

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.