Be more like Satya Nadella and mind the empathy gap

How refreshing in these chaotic times to see a CEO of a $250B company on national television (CBS Sunday Morning) speak about empathy and compassion as a business essential. Since Satya Nadella took the reins from Steve Ballmer to run Microsoft four years ago, he has been on a mission to transform the company’s hard-charging and competitive culture to foster growth. And it’s working. Since he stepped in and implemented strategic and cultural changes the company’s performance has skyrocketed (evidence: a total return price of 97.07 on March 12, 2018, as compared to under 40 at the end of 2014).

Nadella says that when you are empathetic you can understand the unmet needs of customers and that compassion drives you to come up with solutions for these needs. I encourage you to read this last sentence a second time. It’s quite profound.

Empathy and compassion aren’t words we usually associate with financial success, but we should adjust our thinking. Obviously, I am not claiming that empathy and compassion are all you need to run a year-over-year financially successful business. But it can help.

Empathy and compassion go hand-in-hand with the creative/innovative thinking that drives entrepreneurial success. Mindfulness exercises free up mental space for creative thinking (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006). Even better, mindfulness enhances the pattern recognition process that can help facilitate the identification and processing of information necessary for market and opportunity analysis (Gaglio & Katz, 2001). More specifically, and probably a window into how Nadella’s mind works, the ability to recognize shifts in technology and markets and to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated trends/events and then integrating those insights into meaningful connections is how new product ideas emerge (Baron and Ensley, 2006). Empathy and compassion are the lubricant for the meaningful connections. 

Emotional Intelligence (EI), Nadella would surely agree, has a role in a conversation about empathy and compassion in the workplace. One study on EI found that emotionally intelligent negotiators create value by developing win-win solutions (Foo, Elfenbein, Tan, and Aik, 2012). Missing reference below. Nadella is obviously an emotionally intelligent negotiator, among other things, and his influence is being felt and echoed across Microsoft. Anyone who has ever worked in a group setting knows how powerful—both good and bad--this “emotional contagion” can be (Barsade, 2002). 

Tips to cultivate empathy and compassion at work via mindfulness


  • Building your empathy quotient begins by quieting your mind which allows you to focus on others' feelings and points-of-view. It is hard to focus on someone else when we are engaged in a conversation inside our own head.
  • Challenge your own assumptions (difficult but possible to do). Next time you find yourself automatically making an assumption about someone, pause and look for evidence to dispute your bias. This will help slow down that powerful pattern-making machine in your brain long enough for you to see the person as they, are not through the filter of your biases and judgments.
  • Consider how digital communication can impede expressions of empathy. Before you hit send on your electronic communications, ask yourself one simple question, “How do I want the other person to feel as they read this?”  And always take a pause before you hit send on a message when you are feeling angry, frustrated, or annoyed.


  • Showing compassion to others begins with being compassionate towards yourself.  It is hard to care for others when you are burdened with self-judgment and self-criticism.
  • Start each day with an intention to help someone. Help can simply be listening to their story.
  • At work, we have many opportunities to practice compassion. Find a way to help someone who is struggling with a heavy workload. Encourage someone who is having a bad day. Or pull a group together to brainstorm on finding a solution to a particularly difficult issue.

While the notion of using empathy and compassion as a tool to help bring about business success may seem alien to some at first, it’s a kinder, gentler strategy that has tremendous merit. Perhaps it’s time to take a page from Satya Nadella’s playbook.


Baron, R. A., & Ensley, M. D. (2006). Opportunity recognition as the detection of meaningful patterns: Evidence from comparisons of novice and experienced entrepreneurs. Management Science, 52(9), 1331–1344.

Barsade, Sigal G. (2002) The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (4).

Gaglio, C. M., & Katz, J. A. (2001). The psychological basis of opportunity identification: Entrepreneurial alertness. Small Business Economics, 16(2), 95–111.

Hargadon, A. B., & Bechky, B. A. (2006). When collections of creatives become creative collectives: A field study of problem-solving at work. Organization Science, 17(4), 484–500.

Oly Ndubisi, N. (2012). Mindfulness, quality and reliability in small and large firms. International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management, 29(6), 600–606.


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