For leaders, criticism is inevitable.
Criticism is inevitable because mistakes are inevitable. We will overlook things we should notice. Make bad decisions. Say things we shouldn’t. We fall short. We’re human.
Accepting this reality is the first step to responding to criticism with steady assurance, class, and understanding. The video above shows Steve Jobs doing just that.
Not only does Jobs show a terrific example of a leader carrying himself in the face of blunt criticism, he also provides a lesson on how a leader who is open to criticism can actually increase influence and build culture. He shows how giving others the space to express negative opinion – even if the criticism is unkind or unfair – can actually make the leader and the team stronger.
3 Lessons We Can Learn from How Steve Jobs Responds to Criticism
There are 3 things I really admire about how Jobs handled the exchange in the video:
- Full Stop: You can tell Jobs knew he was about to get blistered. But before he said a word he sat down, took a deep breath, then grabbed a sip of water. He gathered his thoughts. Then he quietly began his reply.
- Fight Fire with… Ice: Jobs does not attack his critic. He uses humor to lighten the mood, then he pivots. Acknowledging the criticism that good technology got cut, he then calmly explains the tough choices. He humbly admits that some of these decisions will be mistakes. (For more tips on handling haters see this article).
- Return to First Principles: The entire discussion becomes a window into the fundamental principles driving Jobs and Apple’s leaders. The relentless focus of the company would be on the experience of the user. This would mean hard choices. But it also gave a context for those choices. Jobs freely admits that following these principles will not always mean the right decisions:
“Some mistakes will be made along the way.” He says. “And that’s good. ‘Cause at least some decisions are being made along the way. And we’ll find the mistakes. We’ll fix them.”
Jobs embraced the criticism.
The thing I admire most about this exchange is that it stands as an example of how leaders at Apple should respond to criticism. It is a cultural “keystone” moment. Jobs shows that no leader of Apple is above criticism or untouchable. He illustrates through his behavior that he is open to criticism and negative feedback. He’s approachable.
The most cutting thing his critic suggests is that Jobs isn’t doing anything at the company. In less than 60 seconds jobs shows through his answer that he is doing a heck of a lot. He gives some very concrete examples about the types of choices a customer experience centered company must make. He lays out the tension between what technology can do and what is should do.
Avoid Cultural Damage
What if Jobs had fought fire with fire instead? The guy was clearly out of bounds. Nobody would think twice if Jobs gave him a public smack-down. He deserved one. But Jobs understood it wasn’t worth the cultural damage it would cause.
True leaders embrace criticism and feedback. When a leader kills the messenger with bad news, it destroys the culture. It creates fear. The team won’t try new things, bring up problems, suggest new ideas, or take chances. It sucks the life out of the culture. More important, it crushes performance and strangles innovation.
Encourage your team to give you feedback, especially when it is negative or critical. Practice responding to criticism like Steve Jobs. Take a deep breath. Respond calmly and humbly. Keep the focus on first principles. It won’t always feel great, but your team will thrive.
Have you been criticized for a decision? How did you react? How do you handle mistakes made by your team? What do you do to stay calm and centered in the face of criticism? Let us know in the comments.