Satya Nadella: Empathy Is the Cornerstone of Life & Work

How did Satya Nadella deal with his son’s disabilities? How did he apply those lessons to the rest of his life and career?

The theme that is the most central to Satya Nadella’s business philosophy is empathy. For Nadella, empathy is the cornerstone of all that he does, both personally and professionally, and he believes that it’s shaped his career at Microsoft and his vision for the company.

Keep reading to learn how Nadella developed empathy and why it’s so important to him.

Satya Nadella on Empathy

According to Nadella, empathy was something he had to develop early in his career. He cites his son’s disabilities as helping him to become a more empathetic person. Faced with the reality of his son’s permanent condition, he writes that he learned to put aside his own feelings in order to better understand the struggles his son faced, and, with his wife Anu’s encouragement, learned how to become a strong support for his son.

(Shortform note: Nadella’s son, Zain, was born with cerebral palsy and required extensive therapy and visits to the ICU. In 2021, Nadella and his wife donated $15 million to Seattle Children’s Hospital—which Nadella described in Hit Refresh as their family’s “second home”—in support of care and research for children with neurological conditions. Zain died in 2022 at the age of 26.)

For Nadella, empathy is about understanding others’ points of view and also seeking to help empower them. He believes that empathy enables Microsoft to understand its employees and customers better, helping the company to anticipate the needs of its clientele while also creating a more welcoming and dynamic environment in the workplace.

(Shortform note: Nadella values empathy so much that he required Microsoft’s senior leadership to read Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. The book is about conflict resolution based on compassion instead of life-alienating communication. This was a necessary tool at Microsoft, where senior leaders were constantly at odds.)

Empathy as Understanding Others’ Obstacles

Nadella also posits empathy as crucial for understanding the obstacles others may face due to racial, gender, or class categories/backgrounds.

Nadella says he faced occasional abuse as an Indian immigrant when he first came to America, but that the privileged background he came from back in India helped to insulate him from taking the insults too personally. He acknowledges that, for many immigrants and people from less-privileged backgrounds, the barriers can be even harder to overcome. 

Nadella says that witnessing the career sacrifices of his mother and wife opened his eyes to the struggles many women face professionally. His mother was an accomplished Sanskrit scholar, whose career struggled—and then floundered—under the pressures of trying to balance both her family and working lives. She eventually gave up working after the death of Nadella’s younger sister, just as Nadella’s wife eventually gave up her career as an architect to care for their young children.

(Shortform note: As Nadella describes, inequality within the business world takes many forms. Research indicates that the greatest divide up until the 1970s was originally along gender lines, with men and women largely confined to differing roles. But since the 1980s, gender and ethnicity have been roughly equal as factors in job segregation. The research also found that minority or marginalized members of the workforce tended to report lower levels of job satisfaction and to be more likely to leave than employees who belong to the dominant demographic in a workplace.)

Satya Nadella: Empathy Is the Cornerstone of Life & Work

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books 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 creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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