Back in the day, Microsoft was the butt of jokes, laughed at for missing out on mobile entirely, as well as its clunky hardware, talking paperclips, and susceptibility to viruses and spyware. These days all the cool kids may still have Macs, but Microsoft, under CEO Satya Nadella, is turning a corner.

Last week it revealed sleek new hardware offerings that won plaudits from some reviewers -- "Microsoft seems to have taken Apple's crown," crowed Quartz's Mike Murphy -- and its financial performance is looking up. All of this, experts insist, reflects deeper cultural changes at the company.

"What Nadella has done is not only bring Microsoft out of decline... but to change the nature of the company internally and - miraculously - its image externally, to make it the kind of place that ambitious engineers and researchers might choose over its rivals," wrote Wired last year.

How did Nadella turn a stodgy, stagnant behemoth known for its executive infighting into a place where innovation can actually thrive? A surprisingly big part of the answer is a single 15-year-old book.  

The book that tamed Microsoft's toxic culture

Like most CEO's Nadella is a voracious and eclectic reader. "Without books, I can't live," he told Fast Company's Harry McCracken. And many of the the books he most loves are recommended by his wife, Anu, including the one that played a starring role in Microsoft's transformation -- Nonviolent Communication, written by psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg in 2003.

In fact, Nadella believes in the book so strongly that when he was named CEO among his first actions was to hand it out to every one of the company's executives to read.

"It was a little bit of a surprise," Microsoft President Brad Smith told USA Today. "[Former CEO] Steve Ballmer was not somebody who brought in books. There was definitely a sense that this was something different."

What kind of change exactly was Nadella signaling with his choice of book? As Business Insider's Mark Abadi explains in his helpful write-up of the its contents, Nonviolent Communication (as you might expect from the title) is all about how to communicate with empathy. It lays out four essential components of 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.

This might not sound radical, but it represented a major shift for Microsoft at the time. Under Ballmer, the company was notorious for turf wars, competing factions, and a general focus on politics rather than new ideas. By changing the way leaders interacted with each other, Nadella hoped to rechannel all the energy that was going to one-upmanship towards actually making products consumers wanted to buy. It seems to be working.

So if your business or team is plagued with infighting and lacks the sort of supportive culture that's essential for innovation, you might want to steal Nadella's idea and hand out this book to your colleagues. Even just reading it yourself might give you some ideas on how to move from combative to creative.

Published on: Oct 8, 2018