What Do You Want From Your Employees?

Can you explain your leadership principles – in as few words as possible?

When Joe Whittinghill came into his role as general manager for talent, learning and insight at Microsoft, the tech giant’s leadership model was characteristically thorough.

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Microsoft went to three big ideas: Create clarity, generate energy, deliver success.

There were eight competencies leaders needed to succeed, 10 behaviors that marked inclusive diversity, five things employees had to do to flourish and more than 100 skills you needed to develop, depending on your profession.

These components “were not memorable,” Whittinghill said. “They were exhaustive.”

Three leadership principles

As part of the company’s cultural refresh, Microsoft partnered with us at the NeuroLeadership Institute to revisit its leadership principles.

After about a year of thinking things through, we went from more than 100 competencies to three big ideas: Create clarity, generate energy, deliver success.

Today those leadership principles, which premiered in mid-2016, have spread across the company. Clarity, energy and success have become part of the way Microsoft talks to itself about itself.

For anyone interested in developing leadership, it’s a huge lesson: Internal branding, leadership principles, cultural values and the like have to be designed with the brain in mind for a company’s employees to make the most of it.

Leadership principles only really exist if employees are thinking about them, saying them to themselves, bringing them up in conversation with colleagues.

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Leadership principles only exist if employees are thinking about them, saying them and bringing them up.

Drawing on the neuroscience literature, we realized that the right model would be pithy to the point of ready recall. The key is to find the word or phrase that captures the priority you’re trying to invoke.

You also have to start with boundaries around how much information people can recall easily, then put the most important things into that space. Just as you’d design an app according to the capacity of a device, you need to design language to the capacity of a brain.

Brain scientists call our recall of sounds echoic memory, and it lasts for only a handful of seconds.

It turns out that if a statement takes less than three seconds to say to yourself or say out loud, it is significantly easier to recall and use. Any time you craft an idea that you want people to remember easily, if the idea can be said out loud in under three seconds, the chances of usage go up dramatically.

Tapping into brain power

Less obvious benefits come from getting pithy. It’s a bonus that stems from one of the fundamental insights of cognitive science, known as chunking. Basically, the mind can hold a limited number objects of attention at once.

In Microsoft’s case, since clarity, energy, success is so simple and cohesive, it can be readily held in mind as a single chunk, ready to guide decisions in real time.

These principles have buried themselves in my brain, too. When I’m hiring someone or thinking about a new product, I check with myself to see how much the decision will create clarity, generate energy and deliver success.

I’ve learned firsthand that the more leadership principles get concise, the more you can put them into action.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

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David Rock is co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute.

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