Saying "we suck" makes you happy?

Steve Rubel says: "I like companies that say 'we suck'" And while I agree with the notion that transparency and a self-critical nature are good, just like pie, I wonder if "liking companies that say 'we suck'" gives companies more permission to, well, suck ("it's OK if you suck as long as you know it, now give me a hug" kind of thing).

Frankly, saying "we suck" is all fine and good, but when it becomes your schtick, it's tiring and it can come off as a little contrived. I'm not talking about anyone or any company in particular. I've just been reading blogs long enough to have an opinion on who does it a lot and who needs to do it more.

Saying it is one thing; doing something about it is something else. Don't get me wrong....go ahead and say it if you have to, say it if your partners, customers or hopefully-someday-customers need to hear it. Heck, say it before someone else does. But you better have a plan to fix it. And you don't get a pat on the back from me just for saying it.

I'm all about less talking (about it) and more doing (more on that in future blog posts)...I think Steve agrees with this but I have to wonder if people will see Steve's declaration and miss the point, focusing their efforts on airing their "suckiness" as quickly as possible. Being able to say it out loud is not a virtue in and of itself.

I like companies that have conversations with their customers/stakeholders and make changes, thereby "sucking" less.

Comments (16)

  1. Wine-Oh says:

    Interesting topic….

    Coming from past work experience at startups, I agree with this post and what Steve says. Often times companies are soley focused on developing and selling their product, and they put all their eggs in one basket. Yet if there is a flaw, a bug, an upset customer, they go into panic mode. Having a client or customer tell you "you suck" or use of other colorful language, should not be taken lightly. Companies dont often see how they are percieved by clients or the outside world.  

    I worked at a company that was sooo reactive in its approach to dealing with customer issues. They wanted to roll their product out and then go back and fix things. It took a large client nearly cancelling their contract for senior management to go "Houston we have a problem."

    My background is in customer service and client retention. The company came to me and another person about spear heading a customer communication department in the hopes of making the company be more proactive in its approach. Needless to say after 3 months of hard work, we changed peoples minds about us. We were sold on the fact we had dedicated customer response plans and were pro-active. Definitely a career achievement I am proud of.

    On a personal note, telling me that I suck makes me want to work harder and show someone I am capable. This is with the goal in mind of proving them wrong. I learn and take alot away from criticism.

  2. Matt Meyers says:

    I agree with Steve Rubel.  Saying that your company and/or product or process sucks is a manifestation the of understanding that there is always room for improvement.  In my opinion, if you’re not cognizant of your faults and weaknesses, and you’re not trying to improve, then you’re dead already.  I prefer to work with people and companies who have a solid understanding that they need to improve, because I am one of them.  For perspective, I work in engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain.  Everyday, I hear managers and their kowtowing underlings say "Things are going great," when in fact I know that they’re not, and I have data that things are bad and getting worse.  Artificial optimism gets pushed up the management chain, so that when real problems are brewing below, upper management never knows it until the situation blows up.  Being honest with yourself that improvement is needed is the first step to making any improvement.  Yes, a company claiming that it sucks is bad or anti-PR, but PR is mostly spin, and spin never made fixed the root cause of a problem

  3. I guess that all depends on the company and the context.  I’m not sure how I’d take the admission "we suck" from Hoover (or "Hoovr" in the Web 2.0 parlance).

    Would Hoover mean

    "We powerfully suck dust mites from your carpet",

    which is an instance of sucking in a good way, or

    "We don’t powerfully suck dust mites from your carpet", which is also an instance of sucking, but not in a good way?


    Dust mites are evil, so in this context, "we suck" is good.  But sucking at sucking isn’t good.  Unless you’re saying that we’re bad at being bad, which would be good, except for the double negative, which is usually bad.

    I prefer companies which are honest (not to mention classy) enough to admit what they don’t do well.  But perhaps they could use a term better than "suck".  "We suck", however, is far better than "outside our core paradigm".  In either case, send the copywriter back to vocabulary class.

    We don’t even need to get into the fringes of society, either.  I’m just saying…

  4. Shannon says:

    I think the point is that there has to be a balance.  You can’t rave about your products and ignore the shortcomings.  Yes, you need to use the best positioning and overcome sales objections (to a point), but also admiting that there is room for improvement is, in my humble opinion, is necessary for innovation within any company.

  5. Paul says:

    I’m all for honesty, self-awareness, integrity and doing the right thing by the customer.  However, this isn’t that.  This is false humility (i.e. hubris), and unnecessary negativity for its own sake.  This kind of navel gazing detroys moral, hurts good people and good companies, and does little to improve the situation if it really could be improved.

    Why would I be so contrarian when the prevailing trend is to proudly air all your dirty laundry?  Let’s examine the assumptions behind the notion that it’s OK, even healing and therapeutic to say you suck.

    First, do you really suck?  No product is perfect.  In our world, the mantra is continuous innovation, TQM, Six Sigma — all good things, right?  Well, each assumes that there is imperfection and room for improvement.  Yet, they do so in a positive way.  If people are genuinely trying their best, and continuously improving, and supporting their customers well, they can still have a product that has flaws, or whose interface could be made easier to use.  But room for improvement doesn’t mean “sucking”.

    In my mind, sucking means you are delivering below your capability and below the customer’s expectation.  It sucks when a company like Enron lies to the SEC and leaves their shareholders and employees out in the cold while fraudulently enriching their executives.  It sucks when a company weighs the cost of installing safety equipment versus the cost of paying out on claims for death and suffering and decides that the lower financial risk is to pay the claims — the calculus that Ford used when it chose not to install a $1 plastic part that would have prevented bolts from piercing the gas tank of a Pinto and causing a massive explosion when the car was struck from behind.  Presumably those big bad things, we can agree on.  Go ahead, say you suck if that’s what you’re doing.

    But, if the people around you are working their butts off, and still manage to leave some glitches or small areas for improvement in the product, is it fair to tell them they’re building a product that sucks?  That’s what the Yahoo programmer that Rubel is praising is doing.  Do they all agree that what they’re doing sucks? Do even 20% of them agree with that assessment.  If the number isn’t that high, and the customers aren’t unhappy, the only thing making public complaints about the things that are wrong does is demoralize the other team members who are trying their best.

    Absolutely, behind the company walls and in r+d meetings, discuss how you can keep making things better.  But don’t say things suck because you haven’t got there yet.

    On the other hand, let’s concede that things really suck.  If that’s true, should a programmer be slamming his team for how bad it is in an open forum, or should he take some personal responsibility for fixing what’s wrong, and talking positively about how they’ve recognized that things could be better and here’s the steps we’re taking to do it?  I know that techies tend to view things as black and white, and can be harshly critical, especially of their own work, but that doesn’t mean saying “we suck” is a positive thing.

    In other words, if you really suck, make a commitment to fix it and be honest, forthright, but positive about what your team is doing to correct it.  If you don’t, then being negative serves no purpose except to prove that you can purge yourself better than the next guy.

    If you are the person at the top, however, you may have different obligations to the market, the press, your customers and partners.  If your company sucks, you probably do need to plead mea culpa, but not in a way that blames anyone other than yourself.

    My opinion: Steve’s comment is probably well-intentioned, but the thinking is shallow.  There is a big difference between “pr managing” bad news, as I’m sure Edelman has done many times for their clients, and slamming your people for sucking.

  6. Mark Raven says:

    I agree wholly and totally with Ms. Hamilton. One never says or does anything other than the positive for the company and its chief executive officer. To do otherwise would be to bring undo shame to the firm and its leader.

    For decades, I believed that hard work, ethics, integrity, dedication, and performance mattered in the workplace. And in no where did I believe this more than the Fortune 500 work setting. Alas, that idea is pure folly and foolishness today.

    These days, survival in the workplace is incumbent upon do ingwhatever the company, its chief executive officer, and those in management positions dictate to the employee. For one to do otherwise would be akin to slitting one’s veritable throat and, I respectfully submit, none of us wishes to perform career suicide merely to improve company performance, better the product for our customers, or improve the workplace environment.

    Always remember – and I learned this lesson the hardest of ways – that your company, its chief executive officer, and everyone in management is always correct and you, if you wish to retain a paycheck, must adhere to their beliefs, standards, and motives – even if these run counter to everything you have ever learned in society, your place of worship, or from legal text.

    Quarterly performance is all the matters. Nothing more. The better your company, its chief executive officer, and its management appear to the world, the better your chance of extending your career at that organization by one more week.

    Happy Memorial Day to you all!

  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    Mark-I think you are bringing up a topic that I don’t necessarily agree with you on. You saying that you agree with me kind of makes me nervous because what you said is definitely not the point I was trying to make. My point was that there’s nothing virtuous is self-critique if one isn’t going to do anything about it. And I think that some people may be using it as a device to garner approval.

    Culturally, I think some companies do tolerate a lot of internal self-anlaysis and do something with that information. I actually see that quite a bit at Microsoft.

    Your view of corporate life seems pretty bleak. Not sure I’d have an easy time getting out of bed in the morning if I agreed with you. Havong said that, I appreciat eyou sharing your opinion (even though it’s different than mine).

  8. Wine-Oh says:

    Woa! Im with Heather on this one. Mark, your sentiments are not what the original positing was about. Your indicating its better to just sit and follow the direction of senior management and let them dictate things. That type of model and thinking went out with the .com bust. Gone are the days when known names were were hired as CEO’s to be the spokesperson of a company. Companies now want to hear the good and bad. Especially the bad so they can improve on what they are doing wrong. Case in point, ever check into a hotel and have an issue. Then the issue is resolved relatively fast? Its because they want things to be perfect, and they learn from the mistakes or issues. People on an individual level, especially in a corproate setting do the same thing. Theres always room for improvement, and with that comes taking the bad and working on ways to improve. /End rant

  9. Mark Raven says:

    Ms. Leigh,

    Thank you for posting my thoughts.

    My agreement with you is quite sincere. I find self critique to be a fool’s task in the workplace setting, especially if said self critique results in the employee doing anything counter to the wishes, desires, and intentions of the firm, its chief executive officer, and management as a whole.

    Quite simply, and I’m sure you would agree with this, the firm, its chief executive officer, and management at all levels simply know better than the employee what the organization needs to achieve its goals. Whether those goals, or the means by which said goals are attained, are in concert with the interests and intentions of the employee is quite meaningless. The employee is a commodity. To view the employee as anything more than a commodity is to endanger the corporation, its chief executive officer, and management at all levels.

    All employee actions must follow in strict adherance to the directions of the company, its chief executive officer, and management. Only in this way can the organization grow for the betterment of its shareholders, financing organizations, its chief executive officer, and management at all levels.

    Remember that the employee is but a commodity, emphasize this fact to the employee at every level of the organization, and the company will improve its financial standing for the benefit of its shareholders, financing agencies, its chief executive officer, and management.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Mark, I don’t question your sincerity, but I still don’t agree with you. "I’m sure you would agree with this"…don’t be sure. Let me be clear…I don’t agree with you. Strong leaders want to hear the good and the bad and they hire the great people they trust to tell them the good and the bad.

    If people were a commodity, we wouldn’t go to the trouble of interviewing them. Yes, we hire people to achieve corporate objectives. One of those objectives is to improve through change (and our shareholders are better for it). I’m sorry, but your bleak view of the workplace is not "the way it is". If it’s that way for you, I am sorry to hear it. If my manager didn’t tolerate me disagreeing or bringing to light things we could change for the better, I’d start questioning what it is about me that keeps me from being able to do that. See, that self-critiquing thing comes in handy.

    Seriously, enough with the evil leadership thing. Sharing your personal experience is one thing, but preaching a totally erroneous and dis-empowering rant is something else. Again, I am sorry if you have it that bad, but I don’t. And my last name is Hamilton ; )

  11. Mark Raven says:

    Ms. Hamilton,

    First, allow me to apologize for failing to use your correct last name in my post prior to this. Such sloppiness is completely unacceptable.

    Also, please accept my apology for making an assumption as to your beliefs. Assumptions are the property of the foolish mind. In this case, as in the prior, my apology is quite sincere.

    I must disagree, however, with your characterization of my previous post as “preaching” or as a “rant.” Of course, I am not as well schooled in all things computer as someone from your outstanding organization, but I understand a rant on the Internet to be an activity involving the use of capital letters, inappropriate or foul language, and stigmatizations both large and small.

    With all due respect to you and to the fellow readers of your fine website, I employed capital letters in my previous post(s) only at the start of a sentence. I offered no inappropriate or foul language. I stigmatized, neither in word nor in intent, no one who chose to disagree with me and/or my position.

    Also, and again with all due respect to you, your fellow readers, and your nice website, I disagree with your statement that I described the leaders of Fortune 500 companies as “evil.” I never used such a term. I never implied, either directly or indirectly, such a belief.

    I am a realist, Ms. Hamilton, a pragmatist, and a product of our fine nation’s system. I fully support our wonderful Fortune 500 companies, their outstanding chief executive officers, and the management at these firms of all levels. It would also be a fool’s errand not to realize the place of the employee in these firms. The employee must subdue his/her views for the betterment of the organization, its chief executive officer, board of directors, stockholders, and management at all levels. These are the people with the money, education, and experience who drive our companies and our nation. They may lead in whatever manner they deem appropriate.

    I learned this lesson most recently while working on a contract basis for a Fortune 200 firm with strong ties to the defense, health care, and computer/IT industries. This corporation is a major player in Washington, D.C., with extensive ties in the Pentagon, the White House, and Congress.

    During my job interview, my eventual employer’s second question was: "How do you feel about being bored?" Puzzled for a moment and not sure if this question was some sort of ruse, I paused and then responded, "I will work in whatever manner you find appropriate."

    Well, "appropriate" often meant a strict 40-hour workweek during which I completed my duties in about five hours. Per week. Five hours per week. Not five hours per day.

    What did I do with my remaining time? Well, at first, I tried to look busy, but I must admit to being terribly poor at this inactivity. Eventually, I wound up, with the tacit approval of my employer, surfing the Internet for 6-7 hours per day. I am an avid reader about a myriad of topics financial, social, policy, and political.

    During my first day on the job, my immediate supervisor directed me to proofread a simple draft of a technical manual for errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. Nothing fancy. I have extensive professional training in this area. I read the document and noted, much to my surprise and without voicing this editorial observation to others, a surprisingly high level of mistakes. I submitted the document to my supervisor and thought nothing else of it.

    Until two days later when I received a formal email from the head of the department instructing me, in the future, to proofread only for spelling errors.

    Spelling errors. In a manual produced using Microsoft Word. A computer program that offers a spell check feature. I responded in accordance to the directions given to me.

    Later, I learned that company management, in concert with our client’s staff, had produced the draft manual that I had proofread. These people had been furious when I submitted my proofed copy. They responded with the email. Subsequent manuals, and there were more than 20, carried the same mistakes. I was never again allowed to point out – much less correct – these errors. The company now provides these manuals to the client’s numerous customers, and the manuals can be found on the company’s website. The aforementioned supervisor who assigned me to proof that manual on my first day? The client hired her. Gave her a nice pay raise, too.

    Following that email, the company’s management assigned me numerous office duties. In particular, they focused on those efforts that had lagged behind by months, even years. Supervisors directed me to:

    Load and establish a database for 98 boxes of folders. Done in three weeks.

    Clean up and log nine months’ worth of returned Federal Express shipments. Done in two weeks.

    Establish a database for, log, and ship out letters for 16 months of billing issues. Done in three weeks.

    Open and sort the daily mail, often ranging from 300-500 pieces, and a job that two employees had previously done daily in about four hours. Done every day in no more than three hours.

    Why do all this work, you ask? Well, college degree and 15 years of professional experience or not, one must earn money to pay the bills. Heat, electricity, food, Internet access, etc. Why work in such a fashion? Well, the only way I know how to do a job is to do it well. Again, looking busy has never been my style. Knew I should have changed my major in college.

    In the end, it really didn’t matter. In early April, my employer informed me that my services were no longer needed. A friend in management later told me that I had earned rave performance reviews, especially for doing jobs that, well, others just simply refused to do. But, and there’s always a but, my friend upstairs told me that some of my supervisors, and even some of his supervisors, felt that my work ethic was "unhealthy" for the company. "Unhealthy?" I asked.

    "Yeah," he responded with both a grimace and a chuckle. "They thought you were after their jobs."

    I lost the job because I worked too hard.

    Read that again.

    I lost the job because I worked too hard.

    At first, I questioned the sanity of my friend. (That’s a polite way of saying I thought he was nuts. <chuckle>)  “You’re not the first,” he said with a shrug. “They’ve done it to others.”

    Ms. Hamilton, I’ve talked to others, although none within the company for which I had previously worked, who, like me, lost a job and their livelihood for the same reason. They worked too hard. Their managers felt threatened by their hard work, the sound work ethic. Unable to master the art, and it is an art, of looking busy, they found themselves without a paycheck.

    Integrity is a wonderful thing. Hard work was the foundation, or so I’ve been told, on which this country was based. But neither integrity nor hard work pays the bills. Instead, company management, whether by sound, reasoned choice or by unreasonable fear, pays the bills.

    Mr. Rubel’s effort, while interesting, needs a bit more focus. Companies, in my humble opinion, should never say they suck. Employees, who are but a commodity, must be willing to do so whenever management dictates.

    I really don’t expect you to print any of this. You seem to see me as something of a troublemaker. I wish to cause no trouble, merely to broaden the discussion. But, in this case and in the one I described previously, you are management. Your decision is final, and I will, of course, respect it. As I respect you.

    So I wish my best to you, to your website, and to the fine company for which you work.

    Mark Raven

    Rotterdam, New York

  12. HeatherLeigh says:

    Mark, again, I’m sorry to hear about your troubles at work but that certainly does not mean that all companies work that way. And many people in your situation may have sought other employment when someone told them to "look busy". Just because it happens to one person does not mean it’s the same for everyone everywhere and we all make choices as to where we want to work. I encourage everyone to take control of unfortunate work situtions by looking for new employment. If the company does not appreciate you, then moving along is in your best interest.

    I don’t see you as a trouble-maker. I simply see you applying a standard to all companies based on the unfortunate workplace circumstances you have experienced and assuming that I would agree. I’ve had negative and positive experiences at different companies and have pesonally made the changes I needed to make to get to where I wanted to be. I really am not judging you at all, just disagreeing with what you said, that’s all.

  13. Paul says:

    Wow.  That’s all I have to say.  Just wow.

    Actually, it occurs to me that Steve works for Edelman who works for Microsoft, ergo — I can’t wait to see what Steve Ballmer writes in his blog.

  14. HeatherLeigh says:

    Uh, which would make sense if Edelman were our agency of record, which they are not, or if Steve Ballmer had a blog, which he doesn’t. Ergo…

    Sorry conspiracy theorists, no scoop here ; )

  15. Paul says:

    Conspiracy?  Who said anything about a conspiracy?

    However, I think you draw too fine a line on Edelman.  Although most people know that you do the majority of your PR work with Waggener Edstrom, many of your groups also work with Edelman:

    So, given that Steve Rubel is a senior guy advising technology companies, it seems like a reasonable speculation that occasionally he might talk to Microsoft, or manage or partner with people who do.  Also, unless blogging is only for the little people, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conjecture that someday Steve B. might have his own.  So, drawing a line from a to b, it was interesting to consider what might happen if the two Steves ever had a chat.  And. if they ever do, I can’t wait to see . . .   I find amusement in those kind of speculations.  Don’t you?

    Ergo, . . .

  16. HeatherLeigh says:

    I guess I don’t think about that kind of stuff that much since I really don’t know either of them.

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