No one likes telling the boss bad news, but when you’re a manager, your success depends on knowing what your employees know and think. You cannot be surrounded by yes-people. So how do you get honest feedback from reticent employees? To get the best feedback, take note from Apple co-founder and Pixar former CEO Steve Jobs’ approach to it — don’t make feedback an optional question, make it a demand of every meeting that each employee is responsible for answering.
In meetings, ask an employee what’s working, what’s not
In a recent Medium post, Andy Raskin, a San Francisco-based strategic messaging employee, recounted a conversation he overheard between a “Famous CEO” and a “Young CEO” about Jobs’ strategy for feedback. When Jobs was in Pixar meetings, he needed to get caught up quickly, so he would make a point to meet with multiple departments.
“He would have to figure out where his attention was needed really fast, so he would arrange sessions with all the different teams — the Cars team, the technology team, whatever — so there were a dozen or so people in each one. Then he would point to one person in each session and say: Tell me what’s not working at Pixar,” Raskin recounted that the “Famous CEO” said Jobs did. Then, Jobs would ask other people in the meeting if they agreed with that one employee’s assessment. Then, he would pick a different employee and ask them what was working at Pixar. Jobs would toggle back and forth between the two questions until he got a sense of what needed to be addressed.
Jobs’ questions work because they are direct requests for transparency. You cannot get out of answering them with a polite “yes” or “no.” It’s a confrontational approach that may lead to awkward moments, but works if you are confident in your team’s abilities.
In 1995, when Jobs was asked why he would famously tell employees their work was terrible, he explained that his critiques came from a place of respect for the employee and their potential: “The most important thing I think you can do for someone who’s really good and who’s really being counted on is to point out to them when they’re not — when their work isn’t good enough. And to do it very clearly and to articulate why … and to get them back on track.”
Kim Scott, a Silicon Valley veteran who is the author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” endorses Jobs’ approach to feedback as a radically candor one worth adopting.
“People will often misconstrue radical candor as obnoxious aggression. I have found the leading a team means I have to endure a lot of ‘willing to be hated’ moments,” Scott writes. “Part of the reason that I call it ‘radical candor’ is that it’s rare. But the other reason is that one often has to resort to extreme language or actions to challenge people directly enough to get through to them.”
So aspiring Steve Jobs everywhere, listen up. When you are a leader, you have to take the lead in asking employees how they think — even if that means confronting them on-the-spot in uncomfortable meetings.