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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Sounds More Like a Scientist Than a CEO


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Sounds More Like a Scientist Than a CEO


Feb 6, 2023

Satya Nadella is as impressive as they get. By any measure, he's been wildly successful in his near decadelong tenure as Microsoft CEO, not least his role in fixing a broken and toxic workplace culture by going all in on empathy. 

But it's not just his bent for humanity in the workplace (though we certainly need many more CEOs with that default setting); it's the fact that he pairs this "softer" style with a distinctly scientific stance that most other business leaders are also sorely lacking.

Weighing in on the WFH debate

It's no surprise Nadella thinks this way. He is a computer scientist and engineer by training. And he still sees the world through this empirical lens. Most recently, Nadella in an interview was asked about the now perennial topic of work-from-home and productivity. 

It's become a messy debate with a lot of strong opinions, even some shouting. No one seems to agree. Just type into Google: "WFH is ... " and you'll get an even split of positive and negative descriptions: "good," "bad," "making me miserable," "killing me," "the future of work" ... Yeesh. Even Google can't decide. 

When asked his position, however, Nadella didn't really share it. He didn't opine about what he believes is the right course of action for the future of work. Instead, he cited data. 

The paradox of WFH

A number of studies have found that there seems to be a disconnect between leaders and their teams or followers' perception of productivity levels over the past three years. Most employees say they are more productive working from home. But managers are less convinced. 

"Eighty-five plus percent of managers think that there's more to be desired on productivity," Nadella explained. "So there's that paradox, and I think the best way to bridge the paradox is not to have more dogma, but more data." 

Less dogma, more data. That should be the mantra for any organization. Heck, I may just make it my own mantra. It may even make for a cool tattoo. 

Nadella appreciates that the topic is nuanced. And unlike other leaders, he isn't pontificating a point of view about what is better or worse. He recognizes that there is, as we scientists say, a fair amount of heterogeneity in whether someone is more productive working from home versus in the office. It's the age-old answer to a complex question: "It depends."

And it does! As much as most leaders would like it to be, the debate isn't a yes or no answer. Pretending like it is and making decisions based on some confirmation bias is bad for your people and bad for your business. So, my suggestion: Think like a scientist, say it depends, and find the data to inform which direction the dependency runs.

It depends ...

It depends on who the person is. Trait and personality come into play. According to the Big 5 personality theory, someone who is high in extraversion and agreeableness will be more likely to want to leave their home and come into the office or on the client site as compared with their more introverted or disagreeable counterparts. 

It depends on the sector and the nature of the work in a given role. Is it a software or IT service? A function that can be done anywhere by anyone at any time? To what extent do people work alone versus together as a team? Is it project-based? Does the work require divergent- or convergent-style thinking?

It depends on how productivity is actually measured. Separate topic altogether. But most people can't measure things properly, not least something so opaque as productivity. In the knowledge economy, we're not making widgets from a widget factory. We're producing ideas, creating knowledge. Measuring the associated outcomes is extremely difficult. 

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