How Microsoft Changed Its Culture by Going Simple

NLI Culture Change master class

Authored by

NLI Staff
Exhaustive lists of leadership principles burden the brain, making them hard to remember and nearly impossible to weave into the larger culture.

Even one of the most valuable companies on Earth knows how hard it can be to shift a culture.

Fortunately, by focusing on the science of memory and behavior change, Microsoft was able to reduce complexity and make lasting changes to how employees work day to day. The key was embracing a willingness to change and instilling a new set of habits that all employees could remember and adopt. These are two essential steps outlined in NLI’s white paper, “How Culture Change Really Happens.”

From attitude to outcomes

Microsoft’s journey with the NeuroLeadership Institute began with growth mindset, the belief that skills are improvable; they aren’t set in stone.

CEO Satya Nadella professed that his company need to become one of “learn-it-alls,” not know-it-alls. People needed to see themselves, and the organization, as more fluid entities. The focus was on improving, not proving, themselves.

From there, NLI worked with Microsoft’s senior leadership team to establish which principles the company wanted to focus on most. The prior set of principles ran into the dozens, and they accompanied multiple other sets of skills and behaviors that were expected of employees.

Neuroscience research tells us that humans have an extremely hard time remembering such exhaustive lists. This effectively makes them impossible to act on. NLI’s approach to leadership principles is to go simple — and sticky. The principles must not only be pithy, but easy to recall and use on a regular basis. They must also be coherent, in that people should have a hard time remembering one without the other two.

Ongoing collaboration helped Microsoft’s leadership principles shrink to just three, two-word phrases: Create clarity, generate energy, deliver success. Together, they capture Microsoft’s desire to reduce confusion, excite employees, and execute on its vision.

Impact you can see — and hear

Joe Whittinghill, Microsoft’s general manager for talent, learning, and insight, has said these principles exploded “like wildfire” throughout the company. People can ask themselves, Did we create clarity in that meeting? and How are we delivering success? In employing the principles to interrogate their own behavior, employees end up cementing them as integral to the work they do.

As we note in “How Culture Change Really Happens,” “when we blend the new behavior with current activities, it’s easier to latch on to, which makes it become an unconscious behavior more quickly.”

Microsoft used this approach to overhaul its leadership framework. But organizations of any size can use the framework to revamp all aspects of culture, from the broadest performance processes down to the subtlest biases.

This article is the fifth installment in NLI’s new series, Culture Change: The Master Class, a 6-week campaign to help leaders understand the science behind creating — and sustaining — culture change.

Learn more about our culture change solutions here.

Share This Post

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

More To Explore

A black and white photo of a female leader looking out the window while smiling
Culture and Leadership

How HR Leaders Can Manage Their Mental Health

This SHRM article discusses the mental health challenges faced by HR professionals, with Christy Pruitt-Haynes (NLI’s Distinguished Faculty) emphasizing that overwhelmed HR leaders struggle to support their teams effectively, underscoring the importance of prioritizing their own well-being to model healthy behaviors and maintain a supportive work environment.

Ready to transform your organization?

Connect with a NeuroLeadership Institute expert today.

two people walking across crosswalk

This site uses cookies to provide you with a personalized browsing experience. By using this site you agree to our use of cookies as explained in our Privacy Policy. Please read our Privacy Policy for more information.