“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?

12 thoughts on “Microsoft CEO Says Trust the System

  1. In general, we expect the system to work. If that weren’t the case, the system would have collapsed long back. Are the systems exact science? Hardly. Given the large number of moving parts that constitute and impact an individual’s performance, and wide variances in individual managerial competencies to accurately assess them, we often find implementation issues that could leave a few employees shortchanged. I think in every human system, there are errors of omission and commission, and while a large number of these could be eliminated or minimised by better process, training, tools and communication, there will always be some amount of residual errors that we simply must accept. Of course, no one needs to live with it! If you feel terribly upset with it, don’t waste another moment in that place because if you can’t trust the system, then performance assessment should be the least of your problems. Better to go out where you feel there is higher fairness, and prove people wrong.

    1. I agree that people should leave if they feel the system is truly broken. But as you say, no system is perfect. Does expecting the system to work in general mean that people should not advocate for themselves? Or should people trust the system in general, and advocate for themselves when they believe that they are the ones being “shortchanged” or have been subject to one of the errors you mention?

  2. In general, we expect the system to work. If that weren’t the case, the system would have collapsed long back. Are the systems exact science? Hardly. Given the large number of moving parts that constitute and impact an individual’s performance, and wide variances in individual managerial competencies to accurately assess them, we often find implementation issues that could leave a few employees shortchanged. I think in every human system, there are errors of omission and commission, and while a large number of these could be eliminated or minimised by better process, training, tools and communication, there will always be some amount of residual errors that we simply must accept. Of course, no one needs to live with it! If you feel terribly upset with it, don’t waste another moment in that place because if you can’t trust the system, then performance assessment should be the least of your problems. Better to go out where you feel there is higher fairness, and prove people wrong.

    1. I agree that people should leave if they feel the system is truly broken. But as you say, no system is perfect. Does expecting the system to work in general mean that people should not advocate for themselves? Or should people trust the system in general, and advocate for themselves when they believe that they are the ones being “shortchanged” or have been subject to one of the errors you mention?

  3. Gina Phelan says:

    Marshall Goldsmith has famously said that successful people ascribe their success to what they have done, rather than to luck, or rather than to opportunity and connections (of all stripes). And certainly successful people don’t often recognize that they’ve been successful DESPITE what they may have done. Your post also brings to mind Chris Argyris’ argument that corporations and leaders espouse beliefs and theories that aren’t consistent with practice or evidence of fact: Someone may indeed believe that he has succeeded owing to performance and that meritorious performance leads to elevation within organizations. However, in truth myriad factors having nothing to do with performance often have considerable effect on whether one advances or not, yet aren’t acknowledged as such. How many organizations have suffered and collapsed from incompetence in leadership? Yet these same “leaders” are often rewarded with golden parachutes even as their firms file for bankruptcy. In these scenarios it is clear that success results from stellar performance alone.

    Faith in the system, especially where women are concerned, is clearly and woefully insufficient, as the experience of the majority of working women attests — if it were, there would be no gendered pay gap, nor would women have to work twice as hard and achieve twice as men in order to be recognized, promoted, and renumerated accordingly. Sorry, Mr. Nadella, the facts and stats are and have been in for decades and prove you sadly incorrect, if not disingenuous.

    1. Gina Phelan says:

      CORRECTION: Yet these same “leaders” are often rewarded with golden parachutes even as their firms file for bankruptcy. In these scenarios it is clear that success, measured in position and pay, does not result from stellar performance alone.

  4. Gina Phelan says:

    Marshall Goldsmith has famously said that successful people ascribe their success to what they have done, rather than to luck, or rather than to opportunity and connections (of all stripes). And certainly successful people don’t often recognize that they’ve been successful DESPITE what they may have done. Your post also brings to mind Chris Argyris’ argument that corporations and leaders espouse beliefs and theories that aren’t consistent with practice or evidence of fact: Someone may indeed believe that he has succeeded owing to performance and that meritorious performance leads to elevation within organizations. However, in truth myriad factors having nothing to do with performance often have considerable effect on whether one advances or not, yet aren’t acknowledged as such. How many organizations have suffered and collapsed from incompetence in leadership? Yet these same “leaders” are often rewarded with golden parachutes even as their firms file for bankruptcy. In these scenarios it is clear that success results from stellar performance alone.

    Faith in the system, especially where women are concerned, is clearly and woefully insufficient, as the experience of the majority of working women attests — if it were, there would be no gendered pay gap, nor would women have to work twice as hard and achieve twice as men in order to be recognized, promoted, and renumerated accordingly. Sorry, Mr. Nadella, the facts and stats are and have been in for decades and prove you sadly incorrect, if not disingenuous.

    1. Gina Phelan says:

      CORRECTION: Yet these same “leaders” are often rewarded with golden parachutes even as their firms file for bankruptcy. In these scenarios it is clear that success, measured in position and pay, does not result from stellar performance alone.

  5. Gina Phelan says:

    Marshall Goldsmith has famously said that successful people ascribe their success to what they have done, rather than to luck, or rather than to opportunity and connections (of all stripes). And certainly successful people don’t often recognize that they’ve been successful DESPITE what they may have done. Your post also brings to mind Chris Argyris’ argument that corporations and leaders espouse beliefs and theories that aren’t consistent with practice or evidence of fact: Someone may indeed believe that he has succeeded owing to performance and that meritorious performance leads to elevation within organizations. However, in truth myriad factors having nothing to do with performance often have considerable effect on whether one advances or not, yet aren’t acknowledged as such. How many organizations have suffered and collapsed from incompetence in leadership? Yet these same “leaders” are often rewarded with golden parachutes even as their firms file for bankruptcy. In these scenarios it is clear that success, measured in position and pay, does not result from stellar performance alone.

    Faith in the system, especially where women are concerned, is clearly and woefully insufficient, as the experience of the majority of working women attests — if it were, there would be no gendered pay gap, nor would women have to work twice as hard and achieve twice as men in order to be recognized, promoted, and renumerated accordingly. Sorry, Mr. Nadella, the facts and stats are and have been in for decades and prove you sadly incorrect, if not disingenuous.

  6. Gina Phelan says:

    Marshall Goldsmith has famously said that successful people ascribe their success to what they have done, rather than to luck, or rather than to opportunity and connections (of all stripes). And certainly successful people don’t often recognize that they’ve been successful DESPITE what they may have done. Your post also brings to mind Chris Argyris’ argument that corporations and leaders espouse beliefs and theories that aren’t consistent with practice or evidence of fact: Someone may indeed believe that he has succeeded owing to performance and that meritorious performance leads to elevation within organizations. However, in truth myriad factors having nothing to do with performance often have considerable effect on whether one advances or not, yet aren’t acknowledged as such. How many organizations have suffered and collapsed from incompetence in leadership? Yet these same “leaders” are often rewarded with golden parachutes even as their firms file for bankruptcy. In these scenarios it is clear that success, measured in position and pay, does not result from stellar performance alone.

    Faith in the system, especially where women are concerned, is clearly and woefully insufficient, as the experience of the majority of working women attests — if it were, there would be no gendered pay gap, nor would women have to work twice as hard and achieve twice as men in order to be recognized, promoted, and renumerated accordingly. Sorry, Mr. Nadella, the facts and stats are and have been in for decades and prove you sadly incorrect, if not disingenuous.

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