But learning is not only about acquiring new technical expertise, it’s also about listening to ourselves and others, and discovering the things we don’t know about those around us. The most profound learnings entail empathy. When we walk in the shoes of others and try to picture things the way they see them, we can experience the world in a way we didn’t know and let that experience enrich us. Nadella made empathy a centerpiece of his culture revolution not only as a way to better understand the customer, but also as a practice to foster innovation and develop deeper internal and external collaborations.
The beauty of this vision is that it’s made of elements that reinforce each other. Developing a growth mindset—making peace with the ups and downs of life and our own imperfections—creates capacity for empathy. Empathy, in turn, puts one’s own and others’ failure, obstacles and challenges in perspective. It allows us to learn from them thereby constantly expanding our own learning curve. As Nadella notes in his book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone:
If you could understand impermanence deeply, you would develop more equanimity. You would not get too excited about either the ups or downs of life. And only then would you be ready to develop that deeper sense of empathy and compassion for everything around you.”
But how can learning and empathy really make a difference if people’s experiences and backgrounds are all similar to each other? While homogeneity reassures us, it hardly provides the conditions for deeper learning. This is why Microsoft’s decision to embrace diversity and inclusion clarified the importance of creating a context fit to support the development of the culture traits an organization aspires to have. After all, it was when asked to reflect on the issue of pay and opportunity equity for women, at the beginning of his own tenure as CEO, that Satya Nadella found himself publicly stumbling, learning and having to exercise humility.