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How Founders Must Channel Shame.

Even Steve Jobs couldn’t contain his rage when his team failed— but you can choose to do better.

When I do a bad job, I feel shame. I feel worthless and it makes me feel worthy of only being abandoned. And if this is you, hey, you’re not alone.

And yet shame is a part of a functioning society. University of Texas, Austin, psychology researcher, Daniel Sznycer says, “The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. Likewise, the function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships or to motivate us to repair them.”

Today, let’s talk about shame and what place it has, if any, in building products and services that are awesome.

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In 2008, Steve Jobs had a moment of shame when MobileMe got released and it was a disaster. They were trying to launch iPhone 3G, a new version of iOS and the App Store, all alongside it, all simultaneously. After launch, MobileMe was widely panned, full of embarrassing bugs. Jobs gathered employees in an Apple auditorium and asked them, “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” And when his team started to answer, Job snapped, saying, “Why the F doesn’t it do that?” He spent the next hour berating the group, saying they had tarnished Apple’s reputation and that they should all hate each other for having let each other down. He then fired the head of the team and replaced him on the spot. Steve wasn’t happy at all. He clearly felt very deep shame and took it out on his team.

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MobileMe PM Erin Caton shared her side of the story here.

Now, there was a response in 2013. Erin Caton was an engineering project manager on the MobileMe product and she wrote about it on Medium. She said that the line-level engineers had voiced concerns about the launch and they were overruled. This is what she wrote: “Regardless of whether no one in the inner sanctum of dudes that Steve listened to at the time told him all of the things we told our bosses, this was the system that Steve created. He made himself so fearful and so terrible that an entire group of amazing, talented, hardworking people ended up getting screamed at wrongfully. It was his fault that the MobileMe launch went so poorly, not ours.” That’s a really different story.

So, what can we learn from this? Apple has never been the strongest when it comes to software and it still shows, but Steve’s response was clearly driven by shame. He felt deep shame that they had let their users down and he wanted this moment to be a lesson to his team. But based on Erin’s blog post, it was clear that this kind of thing was preventable. She identified the core issue. The top-down push for a spectacular launch was not linked to what was possible in reality, and the lines of communication were clearly broken.

There are really two fixes here.

  1. Leaders need to be extremely careful about top-down communication. There was a wrong call at some point to do a single launch of MobileMe. If you’ve hired well, your organization is good enough and smart enough to know when goals cannot be met, so listen closely.
  2. Deep shame must be acknowledged and then controlled. As an outsider to Apple, it’s hard to know for sure, but I’ve always speculated that the incredible focus on quality and experience came from that deep ownership mentality. Owners feel shame when things go wrong. But the thing is, it’s a mistake to engrave that shame on your team, shame that you can never shake. That’s the kind of thing that cuts you deep. You should never tell your team that that mistake was endemic to them, a native part of that human beings character. It just isn’t. Rather than channel that shame directly to your team, you’ve got to redirect it to process.

Instead of blaming the person you’ve got to say, “What went wrong and how do we fix it?” Let’s change the way we work together. Let’s change the way we talk to each other. And that’s how we fix this. That’s the only thing that could actually stop you from making the mistake in the first place.

“The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships or to motivate us to repair them.”

That’s not to say shame in and of itself is bad. There’s actually some evidence that shame is a very key part of our evolved society. That’s the idea that researchers Daniel Sznycer, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides had in their research paper: “Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures.”

One of their key findings is that the function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships or to motivate us to repair them.

In proto-civilization, it was important for people doing things, both good and bad, to know when they were either helping or hurting that community. The researchers have a theory that the shame system is actually designed to give others some vote in what behavior you end up choosing. And in this day of social media, there may well be some truth to it.

A simulator lets us experience what life would be like if we did X or Y. Shame is an input to that simulator, so you should pay attention to that feeling.

Shame is an important simulator for us to model what we think other people need and want.

And that’s why the feeling of shame is so important for good builders. Don’t get rid of it. Don’t hide it. Don’t ignore it, pay attention to it.

When great builders and founders pay attention, the things they’ve created fall short of their mark and they notice it, it affects them. They take it seriously, and then they take action. It’s no mistake that the true North star of building is the classic mantra I learned from Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston: Make something people want.

Things go wrong. This is a fact of life. No matter what you try and do in life, you’re going to have your face punched in, and it doesn’t matter at some level whose fault it is. It does matter how it happened, though, and what changes you can put in place to prevent it from happening again in the future. This is something I struggle with deeply. Can we be more self-aware? Can we take ownership of our product? Accept the shame you feel, but then direct it in the right way.

“No matter what you try and do in life, you’re going to have your face punched in, and it doesn’t matter at some level whose fault it is.”

I still feel that shame all the time. When something goes wrong, I can spot it a mile away, but now I notice it, and in that moment, I can choose to either funnel that shame to others and have that be a part of their experience–leading to a culture of fear and blame–or I can make it a more enlightened choice. I can drive it to the question that really matters. What went wrong and how do we use process to prevent it from happening again? Always remember people, this is a choice. You’re going to get things wrong, you’re going to feel shame, but what you do with that shame is up to you. You’ve got this, we’ve all got this.

Watch me talk about shame on my YouTube channel here.