Up front: May 2013

Gain in pain

By many accounts, Steve Jobs was a jerk. He occasionally referred to employees as “shitheads” and once told a development team, “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” I guess he wasn’t much for team building.

Behind his vitriol was a mania to produce the best products. “We have an environment where excellence is really expected,” he said in 1983. “What’s really great is to be open when [the work] is not great. My best contribution is not settling for anything but really good stuff, in all the details. That’s my job — to make sure everything is great.” That willingness to reject mediocrity — to scrap two prototypes of the iPhone before approving it — is why the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant’s brand value is No. 2 in the world after Coca-Cola.

I don’t support calling co-workers shitheads — even those who deserve it — but Jobs’ example shows that while being nice is nice, real improvement can come through criticism. That’s supported by a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, which claims positive feedback is best employed when someone is learning. It keeps novices engaged. But experts — people committed to their careers, such as most Apple employees — respond to negative feedback.

It’s natural to take criticism personally, especially in the workplace, as job performance is a large part of self-worth. For example, I think I’ve sacrificed a lot to be an editor, taking on student loans, moving away from my family, spending hours determining the appropriate placement of a comma (and, if you ask my boss, still not figuring it out). So my face gets red when someone slams my work. I start to sweat. I can get a bit brusque. My skin, I admit, is wafer thin.

But I’ve made the most improvement in environments that provided honest evaluations of my shortcomings. There was the grad-school professor who was “thunderstruck” (it’s hard to forget that word) by my lack of progress, the assistant sports editor who made me redo the box scores again and again, the editor in chief who demanded five rewrites of one magazine article. The hard lessons are the ones I can’t seem to shake — the corrective braces that still shape my work.

I’m not saying the world needs a bunch of Mike Rice clones. He’s the former Rutgers University basketball coach who was recently fired for, among other things, launching basketballs at the heads of players that made mistakes. That’s not tough, that’s abuse. I’m not saying you should be mean, either. Jobs’ volatility was one of the reasons Apple ousted him in 1985.

But we could use a bit more honesty when assessing performance. One Apple underling, after recounting some of the boss’s atrocities to a Jobs biographer, said, “I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.” It might sting, but it’s probably not personal. The hope is that pain begets progress. It usually does.

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