Leading With Empathy: Why Listening to Employees Matters

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Hit Refresh" by Satya Nadella. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How important is it for a leader to have empathy? How can a leader let employees know that their needs matter?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes that empathy is central to good leadership. In his book Hit Refresh, he argues that leaders must continually solicit employee feedback and listen to their points of view with sincere caring.

Keep reading to understand Nadella’s approach to leading with empathy.

Leading With Empathy

The enemy of empathy is detachment and isolation. If the leader always keeps to his office or only associates with his senior inner circle, he will lose touch with the other employees in the company. An isolated CEO will also lose out on chances to get to know both his customers and his competitors better.

Leading with empathy is about understanding where others are coming from and addressing their needs, whether they’re an employee, a customer, or even a competitor or business partner you may have disagreements with from time to time. Nadella says he places empathy at the heart of every relationship he has.

(Shortform note: While research supports Nadella’s view that empathy is the most important skill leaders can have, one study suggests that empathy can have its downsides for CEOs, especially during a crisis. The study argues that being too empathetic can cloud a CEO’s judgment by making them too quick to react to perceived problems, overly apologetic even if the situation doesn’t merit it, and slower to address issues in a company’s operational structure. The two sides of the empathy issue thus suggest that moderation and context are key in order to employ empathy effectively.)

Listening to Employees

Nadella believes the CEO must actively seek out employee feedback and be willing to listen to their ideas and concerns with an open mind. He writes that, when he took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he made a public promise to employees that he would listen to others to take stock of where the company was and the problems it faced. He actively solicited employee feedback through wide-ranging surveys and meetings in which he encouraged open conversation and debate.

(Shortform note: Such openness can lead to conflict, but hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio believes conflict can be productive, leading to the best ideas and decisions. In Principles, he writes that you can work through disagreements and move toward cooperation by asking questions rather than making statements, focusing on what the other person is saying rather than how they’re saying it, and maintaining mutual respect.)

Nadella also chose to open the lines of communication by bypassing some of the hierarchy and bureaucracy that made it harder for lower-level employees to be heard. One example of how he achieved this is when he invited junior members of Microsoft to what had traditionally been a seniors-only annual brainstorming retreat. While some senior members resisted the inclusion of the more junior members, the retreat ended up being more productive and dynamic thanks to the presence of fresh ideas and a willingness to listen to them.

(Shortform note: While Dalio similarly values the ideas and opinions of junior employees, his approach is less democratic. To him, it’s important to give more weight to the opinions of people who have proven their credibility. In Principles, he describes his firm’s principle of “believability-weighted decision-making,” which is different from weighing everyone’s opinions equally. Believable people are those who have repeatedly succeeded in the area under discussion and can logically explain their process.)

Leading With Empathy: Why Listening to Employees Matters

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Satya Nadella's "Hit Refresh" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Hit Refresh summary:

  • How Satya Nadella brought Microsoft back from its decline
  • Actionable advice to help you reinvigorate your company
  • A look at the ethical responsibilities of tech companies

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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