“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

I found this statement interesting, not because it was related to women and asking for a pay raise (that’s another topic altogether), but because it clearly demonstrated what Mr. Nadella believes happens in organizations. He believes that people get raises and are given more responsibility because they have faith in the system.

Really? Is that how people get raises and get promoted? Is that what you believe? That is certainly one perspective. And I’m not surprised it is his perspective, because he is a CEO.

His perspective is consistent with what I found in a research project a few years ago. In that study I asked a sample of 2700 respondents whether people get ahead because of their performance or because of their skill at office politics. What I found is consistent with the belief system Mr. Nadella espoused: People at higher levels are more likely to believe that employees get ahead because of their performance, while people at lower levels are more likely to believe that employees get ahead because of their skill at office politics.

It is understandable that leaders believe that they have achieved their positions primarily because of their performance, and that they believe others get ahead as a result of performance. At the same time, leaders need to realize that those below them in the organization do not have the same belief about why people get ahead within an organization. The lower you go in an organization the more likely people are to say that others above them got there because of their skill at office politics rather than because of performance.

If it wasn’t clear before, the outcry over Nadella’s comments makes it clear that leaders need to think very carefully about how they communicate regarding how people get ahead within their organization. While pushing a performance-based explanation is understandable, leaders need to realize that to many of those lower in the organization the explanation may be perceived as self-congratulatory, ignorant of reality, or deliberately deceptive. Rarely is it going to be perceived as completely honest and accurate.

Unless, of course, the leader explicitly adds that they believe a critical component of performance is skill at office politics.

What explanations for success in organizations resonate with you?

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