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What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Debate in the Workplace

Debate was key to the success of Apple under Steve Jobs. Here's how to recreate that environment without getting mean.
Apple Unveils New Software For iPhone And iPad
Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple special event April 8, 2010 in Cupertino, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Steve Jobs once told the story of going over to a neighbor’s house as a kid. The neighbor asked him to collect rocks in the yard. Steve collected a few and handed them over to the neighbor, who threw them into a tin can with some liquid and sandy grit, shut the lid, and turned on a motor which rotated the can. Over a terrible racket, the neighbor asked Steve to come back the next day. When he returned, the neighbor turned off the rock tumbler and pulled out the stones. Steve was astounded to see how beautiful they had become, polished and shiny.

Years later, he likened debate on a team to that rock tumbler. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of friction, but out of that process, sometimes painful, come these beautiful polished stones. Both the work and the people who do the work get polished.

How do you create a culture of debate without creating a “mean” culture or destroying team relationships? After all, you don’t want to leave the rock tumbler on so long that there is nothing left but dust…

It’s all too tempting as the boss to just grab a decision to spare your team the pain of debate. Often, your team will beg you to “just decide.” But if you do, you’ll make worse decisions, get worse results. Your team’s ability to resolve conflict and make decisions will atrophy. Despite the noise and friction, open debate creates a healthier atmosphere on a team than does repressed disagreement or back-stabbing.

Here are some debating lessons I learned while working at Apple.

1. Take the ego out:

The purpose of a debate is to help each other get to the best answer together. There should never be a person who “wins” or “loses” a debate. Debates should in no way shape or form resemble political debates, which have devolved into counterproductive “likeability” contests. I saw leaders at Apple do two really smart things to keep ego out of debates.

Switch roles. When executives at Apple were deciding whether to launch iTunes on the Microsoft Windows platform, it was a gut-wrenching debate. At the time Apple had less than 5 percent share of the computer market, so low that software developers refused to make applications for Mac, and the company’s future was very much in doubt. In fact, Apple created the iPodto convince people to switch to Mac. So the idea of launching iTunes for the Windows platform was antithetical to everything the company had been trying to achieve. Steve Jobs was vehemently opposed to the idea. But he didn’t kill the debate. In fact, when he saw that his strong opinions were wearing people down, he would switch roles and take their position, arguing for launching iTunes on the Windows platform.

Ask for data, not recommendations. Another smart thing that executives at Apple did was to ask people to come to a debate with data, not with recommendations. People tend to attach their egos to recommendations in a way they don’t when simply presenting facts.

RELATED: How Tim Cook is Remembering Steve Jobs 5 Years Later

2. Put the cushion in:

Remember that Steve’s neighbor threw some liquid and grit into the rock tumbler with the rocks. If he hadn’t, nothing would have cushioned the blows, and the rocks would have damaged, not polished, each other. What “cushion” do you have at your disposal?

Deepen your relationships. One of the things that was striking about Apple was the strength of the relationships that Steve had with his key direct reports. Tim Cook offered Steve part of his liver, and Steve refused to accept the sacrifice, though doing so might have saved his life. There’s only one word to explain that behavior: love. At Steve’s memorial service, Jony Ive described Steve Jobs as his best friend.

The most important thing you can do to help your team endure the noise and friction of debate is to build a strong relationship with each person who works directly for you. When you care personally about the people you’re debating with, that is the most important “cushion” that will help keep the debate productive.

Create an obligation to dissent. McKinsey, the consulting firm, has a powerful culture of debate. A core value explained to every new hire is the “obligation to dissent.” The idea is that if you disagree with something, or if you have a different perspective on a debate, it is your obligation to speak up even--no, especially-- if you just graduated from college and you’re working with a senior partner at the firm. If debate is expected, if people feel uncomfortable when it’s not happening rather than when it is, that assumption also serves as “grit,” or a cushion that makes debate less jarring. When an ex-McKinsey executive joined Apple, he led a team where the culture of debate was not flourishing. He bought gavels with the words “duty to dissent” printed on them, and would slide them to people who were being too quiet in meetings. The culture of debate blossomed.

3. Be willing to be wrong:

In The Lost Interview Steve Jobs said, “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.” Again, this willingness to be proven wrong points to the importance of pulling ego out of a debate. Rather than proving he was right, Steve Jobs used debate to collaborate to get to the right answer. Even though he was at first vehemently opposed to launching iTunes on the Windows platform, he allowed himself to be overruled. If he hadn’t, the iPod would not have seen the success it did; it’s likely there’d be no iPhone, no iPad. If you win every debate, your team will stop debating you. You’ve got to be willing to be wrong.

Be theatrical about your wrongness. Steve wasn’t very gracious in the way he told the iPod team that they’d convinced him to launch iTunes on the Windows platform, but he was theatrical. A colleague told me he said, “You a--holes can do what you want,” and left the room. It was a moment everyone remembered. You can be theatrical in a less harsh way, though. I am no Steve Jobs. To celebrate my wrongness at Google, I once gave somebody a two foot tall glass “I was wrong you were right” trophy.

Insist that people tell you when you’re wrong. One of Steve’s direct reports told a story about a debate he had with Steve. Eventually, he backed down not because Steve had convinced him, but because he was afraid to keep arguing the point. When events proved that Steve had been wrong in his position, he stormed into his employee’s office and demanded, “Why did we do this??” When his employee pointed out that it had been Steve’s call, Steve exclaimed, “Well, it was your job to convince me I was wrong, and you failed!” Not gentle or entirely fair, but his employee argued more vehemently the next time he thought Steve was wrong about something.

4. Know when debate is not appropriate.

A culture of debate is important to building a team of people who are all doing the best work of their lives. But public debate is not always the fastest path to improvement, to a better answer, or to better work. There are times when private conversation is much more effective.

Criticism should be offered in private. There is a fine line between criticism and debate. I don’t have a perfect definition to tell you where that line is — you’ll have to use your judgement. But these are the kind of statements one expects to hear in a public debate: “I don’t understand that logic,” or “I think that math is wrong,” or “We’re not ready for the client meeting until there are no typos in the presentation.” And these are the kinds of statement that feel more like critical feedback that is better offered in private: “In the past several presentations, there have been flaws in your logic. What can I do to help you think through your ideas before you present them?” or “You’ve made simple math mistakes/typos/etc in the last few presentations. You are making good points, but you lose credibility when you make careless mistakes. How can we make sure you review your work before you show it to others?”

Debate is not the best way to nurture new ideas. Speaking at an Apple memorial service for Steve Jobs, Jony Ive also said, “He treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. He understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.” The fastest way to squish a new idea is to submit it to debate before it’s ready. The team working on the multi-touch technology was given time to perfect it before anyone had the debate about whether it should be used on the iPhone. If that debate had happened before multi-touch was ready, the idea would have been killed.

Creating a healthy culture of debate is one of the most important things you as a leader can do to help each person on your team do the best work of their lives. The team’s collective results are impressive, and each individual achieves the growth they want out of their career.

Kim Scott is the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc. and author of RADICAL CANDOR: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: March 14, 2017). Additional information is available at and