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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Steve Jobs and his use of the dysfunctional relationship

I finally read Walter Isaacson's great biography of the late Steve Jobs.  I admit, it was more fascinating than I expected, but for a different reason: I found an astounding portrayal of how dysfunction can be captivating.

Steve would routinely berate, abuse, and express great disdain for people, opinions, and ideas.  And yet, people continued to work with him and thought he was a great genius in spite of this dysfunction.  Why is that?

I think it comes down to Reinforcement (wikipedia). There are well established psychological theories of positive and negative reinforcement.  The canonical example is that a rat presses a bar and gets a food pellet.  This is a fixed-schedule reinforcement (blue FR line in the figure below).  This is what most businesspeople follow.  Work->Salary->Promotion.

What's creepy-fascinating is that if the positive reinforcement, the pellet, is delivered randomly instead of every time, the rat is FAR more likely to press the bar.  See the red "VR" line - it's a much steeper slope and a far more effective way of getting taps on the bar.  In business a "tap on the bar" might equate to submitted reports, new ideas, or checked in code.  Some argue that this phenomenon is why people stay in abusive relationships, because even though an individual is abused, there is occasional and random positive reinforcement and that relationship is much harder to leave than one in which the reinforcement is sparse but continuous.
I'd argue that Job's behavior, conscious or not, was quite similar to abusive relationships.  His abuse was constant and his praise was over-the-top and apparently random.  Sure, you could argue that his praise was nonrandom because he would praise people when they finally got the color blue right, but the reality is that nobody else could tell the differences in the shades of blue, which means the results were effectively random.

Can you use Steve's technique to drive a team to produce more and work harder?  Undoubtably.  The success of Apple is one example.  Is it evil?  Undoubtably.  And it takes a certain emotional numbness, which Steve demonstrated repeatedly, to actually pull this off.

If you're still unconvinced, consider drawing a parallel to an individual who exhibited Steve's same svengali-like appeal: H. H. Holmes, circa 1886.  Erik Larson chronicles his story in "Devil and the White City," one of my favorite reads of the year.

If you really want to understand what Jobs meant to business, don't read the book.  Instead, read Isaacson's smart article in the Harvard Business Review.

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