When CEO Satya Nadella first joined Microsoft, he started diffusing its toxic culture by handing every one of his execs a 15-year-old book by a psychologist

satya nadella

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella bought all the members of his senior leadership team a copy of the book "Nonviolent Communication" in 2014 when he joined the company.
  • At the time, Microsoft was known for having a culture of hostility, infighting, and backstabbing.
  • "Nonviolent Communication" preaches compassion and empathy in communication, and has lessons that apply beyond the boardroom.


When Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he inherited a company whose culture was known for hostility, infighting, and backstabbing among its highest executives.

To turn the company around, he made the members of his senior leadership team read the book "Nonviolent Communication" by psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg. Nadella handed out copies of the 2003 book at his first executive meeting.Advertisement

It was a sign Nadella planned to run Microsoft differently than his predecessor, Steve Ballmer.

In "Nonviolent Communication," Rosenberg preaches compassion and empathy as cornerstones to effective communication.

I took a look at "Nonviolent Communication," and found the lessons apply well beyond the Microsoft boardroom. Here are the three biggest takeaways:
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1. Effective communication has four components

According to the book, there are four components to effective communication:

  • Observing what is happening in a situation (such as someone saying or doing something you don't like)
  • Stating how you feel when you observe the action
  • Expressing how your needs are connected to the feelings you identified
  • Addressing what you want by requesting a concrete action
An example of all four components being met would be a mother telling her teenage son, "Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?"

2. Our observations are often clouded by evaluations

Rosenberg says that good communicators are able to separate their observations of a situation from their evaluations, or judgments of it.Advertisement

For example, the sentence "Janice works too much" contains an evaluation - working too much is subjective, and if Janice heard that, she may take it as criticism and become defensive. On the other hand, saying "Janice spent more than 60 hours at the office this week" is merely an observation without any judgments attached.

Rosenberg wrote that he once heard "observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence," and said he was initially dismissive of the idea.

"When I first read this statement, the thought, 'What nonsense!' shot through my mind before I realized that I had just made an evaluation," he wrote. "For most of us, it is difficult to make observations, especially of people and their behavior, that are free of judgment, criticism, or other forms of analysis."Advertisement

3. We need to strengthen our vocabulary for feelings

One of the most interesting parts of the book is a section on learning to identify and express your feelings.

Rosenberg writes that when you're expressing your feelings, it's better to use words that refer to specific emotions rather than words that are vague and general. Don't say you feel "good" when words like happy, excited, relieved, or anything else could describe how you feel more precisely.

"Words such as good and bad prevent the listener from connecting easily with what we might actually be feeling," he said.Advertisement

On top of that, Rosenberg says it's helpful to distinguish between words that describe our actual feelings and words that describe what we think others are doing. For example, saying "I feel unimportant to the people I work with" may sound like you're expressing your feelings, but you're really describing how you think other people are evaluating you. The underlying feeling might be sadness, discouragement, or something else.

Similarly, saying "I feel ignored" is less an expression of your own feelings and more an interpretation of how other people are acting toward you. And the same goes for words like neglected, cheated, taken for granted, and used.

"By developing a vocabulary of feelings that allows us to clearly and specifically name or identify our emotions, we can connect more easily with one another," Rosenberg wrote.Advertisement

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