Sometimes it's OK for the boss to yell. And by sometimes, I mean, almost never.
Apple founder Steve Jobs “only yelled at me four or five times during the 13 years I knew him,” current Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying in a new book.
Cook describes one of those yelling times in an excerpt from the book published on Fast Company’s website Thursday night.
He had apparently offered to donate part of his liver to Jobs when Jobs was very sick with pancreatic cancer. Jobs cut him off decisively, Cook says. “‘No, I’m not doing that!’ He kind of popped up in bed and said that,” according to the excerpt from Becoming Steve Jobs, a biography by Brent Schlender and Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli coming out later this month.
While no one would begrudge the shouts of a dying man, as Jobs was at that time, the anecdote raises questions: Is it ever OK for a boss to yell? Is "four or five times" of Jobs yelling at Cook a lot of yelling or a little yelling? Cook seems to think it's no biggie.
There are times when it's OK for a leader to raise his or her voice, Morag Barrett, the CEO of SkyeTeam, told The Huffington Post. Barrett’s company works with leaders on what she calls “people challenges” within their companies.
Sometimes a little yelling can show that a leader is passionate about a topic, Barrett says. “When you're trying to rally the troops or inspire them, sometimes showing that passion is important. Raising your voice at the right level and the right time is the skill of a great leader.” If you're even-keeled all the time that can become a problem, she said.
(Sidenote: The ecstatic shouts and screams of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer are legion.)
Barrett also said that in industries like manufacturing and mining, where worker safety is at issue, yelling can be fine, as well. “It’s literally life and death,” she said. Sometimes you need to get a worker's attention quickly, and raising your voice does the trick.
Jobs, who died in 2011, was a legendary leader unafraid of brutal honesty or argument. But his yelling could get very personal and very angry, according to published reports. As told in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography, Jobs once started shouting at a bunch of workers at a different company, calling them “fucking dickless assholes."
That kind of yelling is unacceptable, Barrett said. When it's personal and when it's public, that's not OK. Yelling can make people uncomfortable around you -- afraid of you -- and that's going to stifle creativity and collaboration at work. Yelling can "leave the relationship damaged," she said. Workers will feel disrespected and will lose respect for the boss.
One key to “acceptable” yelling is to communicate the rules of the game to your workers beforehand. Barrett said that you have to have a conversation in which you say, "Sometimes I’m going to raise my voice." You should check in with them and ask if it makes them uncomfortable. “If you haven't had those overt conversations up front, then it's not OK," she said. "You’re gonna cause workers to go on the defensive."
And, crucially, leaders shouldn’t raise their voices very often -- less is more. The four or five times Jobs yelled at Cook were likely "very memorable and meaningful," she said.
Generally speaking, yelly bosses are quickly going out of fashion, as Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger noted in this 2012 article.
"While underlings may work hard for difficult bosses, hoping for a shred of praise, few employees do their best work amid yelling," she writes.
Some of Jobs' defenders would disagree. “If you don’t want to work for a boss that yells at you, don’t work for Apple,” writes Mike Elgan for Cult of Mac in 2011. “If you don’t want to be screamed at by a lunatic perfectionist, don’t enter into a business partnership with Apple.”