Lessons From Microsoft’s Attempts to Reverse “Toxic” Culture

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Global tech companies are taking a PR beating lately. Whether it’s thousands of Google employees walking out to protest what they see as a culture that takes it too easy on sexual harassment, Facebook desperately trying to save face after a massive privacy breach, or Amazon, Uber, and Twitter dealing with ongoing negative headlines, the tech industry is doing its best to circle the wagons and regroup.

The next major global tech company under the PR microscope is Microsoft. But this time it’s a bit different, because the person who put the company under that microscope was its CEO Satya Nadella.

When Nadella took the reins of the company back in 2014, there were pervasive rumors of a “toxic” culture at the company. Backstabbing, infighting, open hostility, and constant squabbling at a time when the company desperately needed all hands on deck to deal with major market competition in nearly every segment and a massive shift in consumer appetites for tech products.

Recently, though, Nadella made public his conversation with key leaders at the company. The topic: how to describe how you really feel, and what are the barriers that make you unable to do so. It’s also been reported that Nadella distributed Marshall Rosenberg’s seminal book, “Nonviolent Communication,” in an effort to create more positive and profitable communication among his senior staff. If your top exec is passing out books about how to communicate properly and clearly, you know there’s more than just an image problem.

But there was also an image problem. And, as Nadella apparently understands, good outward communication necessarily begins with effective interior communication. The book focuses how communication breaks down when people are not able to accurately convey how they feel, but it also discusses the problems that arise when people don’t listen.

Both of these dynamics apply directly in the field of PR communications. Being able to accurately convey how one feels is parallel to a focused PR message: this is who we are, what we’re about, and why you will love us. This is one of two vital sides of communication.

The other is the mirror image, listening to your audience say the very same thing, and understanding what they really mean. In recent years, Microsoft is not nearly the only company that has failed in this charge. When you don’t listen to or understand your audience, they will feel misunderstood, which can lead to messaging that makes them feel abandoned, bullied, diminished, or manipulated. When that happens, they are not likely to remain loyal.

Many big brands, even generational powerhouses like Sears and GE, have begun to slide because they failed to understand their audience or they failed to adapt to a shifting marketplace.

But, when your audience feels heard, appreciated, respected, and valued, they will offer their loyalty, as well as an open line of communication to help you learn more.

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