In the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying, "If you don't feel comfortable disagreeing, then you will never survive." Recalling his former boss, Cook said that Jobs would purposely take contrary positions to trigger more discussion "because it may lead to a better result."

Apple hires employees for technical and social skills. Among the most valued social skill--employees who have strong opinions and have the courage to voice them.

Steve Jobs respected people who could push back. When Jobs passed away, a celebration of his life was held at the Apple campus. Apple's chief designer, Jony Ive, said Jobs would pitch wild ideas and expected people to give him open, honest feedback, sometimes called 'fearless feedback' at Apple.

"Hey Jony, here's a dopey idea," Jobs would say. According to Ive, "Sometimes they were. Truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air out of the room and left us both completely silent: bold, crazy, magnificent ideas."

Apple still holds new hires to this high standard. 

In my research for a book on the Apple Store, a hiring manager showed me a form they filled out after interviewing job candidates. It contained one intriguing question: "Could this person have gone toe-to-toe with Steve Jobs?" To this day I think it's one of the best criteria a hiring manager can use when evaluating a job candidate. Jobs was known for being a demanding boss, but he respected a person with the courage to speak up.

Several years ago a former vice president for Apple, James Higa, gave an interview on what it was like to work for Steve Jobs. Higa was working as a freelance photographer and had studied political science, not computer science. Why would Jobs hire him and put him in charge of such critical projects like negotiating music rights for the new iTunes music store? Higa said Jobs hired him because of his "ability to be frank, honest, and able to go toe-to-toe with him on any question."

In some fields, fearless feedback can mean the difference between life and death.

Two weeks ago I was invited to visit a class of top U.S military officers attending an intensive program to learn to deal with sensitive national security challenges. After a particularly challenging discussion, the instructor did not ask for questions. Instead he asked, "Who disagrees with me?" What's wrong with my argument?" Students in the class were expected to challenge the instructor's assertions. And they did. They were fearless about speaking up. I've rarely seen such pushback even in corporate settings.

"What was that all about?" I asked the instructor during the break.

"We're dealing with life and death. We can't afford to be wrong," he responded.

In areas of national defense, there's no room for wallflowers. Instructors solicit fearless feedback and expect their students to find flaws in their argument.

If it hadn't been for fearless feedback, aviation would be lot less safe than it is today. In the 1970s, airline crashes were more common. The industry studied the problem and discovered that it started with a communication breakdown in the cockpit. Specifically, junior pilots kept silent, even when they knew something was wrong. Today, airlines implement a training program called CRM (crew resource management) that requires a culture that fosters and encourages open and honest communication among all crew members.

Here's the key.

If you want fearless feedback from your employees you must create a culture where people feel respected for speaking up, and where they are encouraged to do so. In the airline industry it's known as "no fault go-around." People can speak up without fear of retribution.

Your team members must be confident that, if they express an opinion, they will not be reprimanded, torn down, or become victims of retaliation. Instead, they must be rewarded and held up as role models so others in the organization also feel comfortable expressing their opinions. Every business faces major changes and disruptions. Stifling opinions is a sure-fire way to be left behind.

Published on: Jun 14, 2017
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