Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, is a strong advocate for the critical role of empathy in both personal and professional life.
“Empathy is not a soft skill,” Nadella said in an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner on Tuesday. “In fact, it’s the hardest skill we learn — to relate to the world, to relate to people that matter the most to us.”
He believes that empathy is not just a soft skill but an essential quality that can profoundly impact our interactions and achievements. His perspective on this matter was significantly molded by his personal experience as a parent to his son, Zain, who had disabilities and, tragically, passed away in February 2022. Zain lived with quadriplegia and cerebral palsy, and witnessing his son’s journey deeply transformed Nadella, reshaping him as a person, a parent, a partner, and a leader in the corporate world.
“For the first, I would say even multiple years, I was more in grief about what happened to my plans,” Nadella said. “Watching my wife Anu and what she was doing — she gave up her job as an architect and would walk, drive him up and down Seattle to every therapy possible. I watched that and came to reflect on it and then realized that nothing happened to me. Something had happened to my son and I started seeing the world through his eyes.”
Nadella’s emphasis on empathy is not a new revelation. He has consistently stressed its significance in the workplace, arguing that it is a cornerstone of career development. According to him, displaying empathy toward one’s team fosters improved performance and collective progress.
“It reshaped me as a human being, as a parent, as a partner, and as a leader at work,” Nadella said.
“If you have empathy for your people, they will do their best work and you’ll make progress,” Nadella once said on an episode of LinkedIn’s “Hello Monday” podcast.
The importance of empathy in leadership is supported by extensive research. A 2021 survey by Ernst & Young found that nearly 90% of American workers believe that having an empathetic manager enhances their job satisfaction, productivity, and loyalty. Furthermore, over half of the survey respondents admitted to leaving a job due to a lack of empathy from their superiors, whether concerning work-related issues or personal challenges.
Nadella’s vision of empathy goes beyond the confines of the workplace; he believes it is a driving force behind innovation. He argues that true innovation stems from understanding and addressing unarticulated customer needs, which at its core, is an expression of empathy.
“Innovation is about meeting the unmet unarticulated needs of customers. What’s the source of it? You could say it’s design thinking, but design thinking is empathy.”
Nadella recently shared these insights while accepting the Axel Springer Award in Berlin, an accolade given to individuals who have demonstrated exceptional talents in innovation, market transformation, cultural influence, and social responsibility.
In his life and leadership, Satya Nadella serves as a poignant example of the transformative power of empathy, illustrating how it can shape careers, enrich personal lives, and drive innovation. His unwavering belief in the significance of empathy serves as a compelling reminder of its profound impact on individuals and organizations alike.