Demanding But Nice

In the startup world, many make the assumption that being demanding means being mean.

We read stories about Steve Jobs making people cry, or Jeff Bezos screaming at people in one of his “nutters.”

I get the sense that most people decide that Leo Durocher was right–nice guys do finish last.*

* The actual quote: “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.”

This is a terrible tragedy.  One of the reasons we’ve seen so many instances of founders behaving badly is the way we fetishize the mean, demanding founder.

But focusing on being a stone cold killer misses the point–it’s not the meanness that matters, but being demanding.

Entrepreneurs have to be demanding.  You can’t build an insanely great product or a killer app (side note: even the language we use for success is violent and harsh!) without setting and enforcing high standards.

But there’s no reason you can’t be demanding but nice.

Jobs said things like, “This product is a disgrace.  You should be ashamed of yourself.  You’re lucky I don’t fire you.”

Yet if someone said these things to you, would you be motivated?  Or cowed?

Instead, you can simply say, “I don’t think the current version of the product will be intuitive to our target users.”

I think one of the reasons founders employ the harsh approach is that it tends to shorten the decision cycle.  By snapping at people and emotionally abusing them, you teach them learned helplessness so that they don’t debate your input, but rather scurry off to try to carry out your wishes.

Yet whatever speed you gain by abusing your people is a short term gain that is penny wise and pound foolish.

If you set and maintain high standards, and treat people with respect and kindness, your results will be far better than if you resort to cruelty to intimidate your team into giving you what you want.

5 thoughts on “Demanding But Nice

  1. One key thing I learned living in China is if there's a technical issue, attack the work, not the person. If you say "this code sucks", people will be inclined to fix it. If you say "your code sucks", you're attacking the person and they'll get defensive.

    Too many of the "hard chargers" are narcissistic jerks who overpersonalize everything. They may "get things done", but I don't want them anywhere near my life.

  2. Foo,

    Great point on avoiding unnecessary personalization. And I agree on the prevalence of narcissistic jerks!

  3. Anonymous

    I think this is an interesting point, but I remember aggressive a'holes more than nice, intelligent people. It's unfortunate, but if I were to think about people to hire, I automatically equate meanness with aggressive go-getting.

    You say this doesn't pay off, but I think people like seeing this side come out. It's the side that comes out in competitions from sports to a game of poker. Meanness raises our blood pressure, makes us sweat, gets our adrenaline pumping. This is more memorable and exciting than to cerebrally think fondly of nice people.

    In other words, I think the CEO of Lyft will be awarded for his asshole nature.

  4. This should be required reading for all founders.

    It takes much more work to control one's emotions, framing feedback in a positive but demanding way, which is why I think many founders default to the beratement method instead.

    The long-term results of positivity are a culture built on mutual trust and respect, two critical elements of a successful and lasting company.

  5. Anonymous,

    Brash, arrogant CEOs get attention because of their success. An unsuccessful asshole is just an asshole.


    I totally agree on the need for positivity, and Barbara Fredrickson's research on the Losada Ratio backs it up. You need to have at least a 3:1 positivity ratio to be optimally effective as a leader.

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