In its 1990s heyday, Microsoft was fueled by a sort of aggressive-geek culture. Taking its cue from alpha nerd Bill Gates and his hard-charging lieutenant Steve Ballmer, the technology giant was obsessed with performance and productivity, and if its take-no-prisoners style bruised feelings and alienated employees, so be it.
A lot has changed since then. Gates has become a philanthropist-sage, Ballmer is now an NBA team owner, and Microsoft is run by Satya Nadella, a CEO with a very different world view. Nadella, who took the helm in 2014, has tried to make Microsoft a more empathetic, collaborative company, one that retains its talented employees and can attract new ones.
Among the latest steps toward making Microsoft a more hospitable workplace is the introduction of a new way for colleagues to praise and critique one another’s work. Called “Perspectives,” the system encourages employees to solicit opinions from their peers in a structured way, then collects the responses and shares them with the employee and his or her manager.
The system very deliberately does not refer to “feedback,” says Kristen Roby Dimlow, the human resources executive in charge of implementing Perspectives. Behavioral scientists (paywall) have found employees recoil from feedback, and even the word triggers negative impressions, she says.
“Even when you hear the word feedback, you can see a brain light up (in an MRI), and you feel a threat response,” Dimlow said. “If you feel threatened, your brain shuts down.”
Perspectives replaced a previous system called the Feedback Tool, where input from peers was collected, then reviewed and summarized for employees by their managers. The new system uses language designed to be less intimidating, and to prompt conversations that feel more like coaching than reviews, Dimlow says.
Microsoft’s experiment with Perspectives comes as corporations everywhere are rethinking how they evaluate and critique employees. Companies like General Electric have dropped annual reviews—and with it the stack-ranking system that sorted all workers into tiers—and are instead embracing various forms of continual feedback. Microsoft is no different, having moved away from annual reviews years ago to more frequent “connects” between manager and employees.
Dimlow hopes Perspectives will help employees get to the point where they can solicit feedback—or rather, perspectives—without a structured system in place. Few people are naturally inclined to seek out bad news, and Perspectives should help them learn how to do it, she says.
“It’s a facilitated script that helps give you that muscle for how to ask for perspective,” Dimlow says. “Our ultimate goal is we move beyond tools and make this part of the way we do things all the time.”