A New Approach to Human Assessment

Back in March 2014, I read a fascinating interview of Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, by the Times writer, Adam Bryant. Nadella’s orientation was so unique and rhetorically fascinating that I decided there was enough information provided for a verbal analysis. Using psycho-rhetoric, a new tool that makes assessments possible, I posted the results on my blog

I drew a number of conclusions growing out of Nadella’s consistent use of the rhetorical form of point/counterpoint. The form–a verbal pattern–stresses affinity to the past, and provides an alternative reading for the future. The use of the form made it possible to reap the positive and constructive legends surrounding Gates’ tenure without rejecting Steve Ballmer’s tenure. Significantly, the strategy limits the potential for rejection and blowback that many new CEOs face.

Using point/counterpoint, Nadella positioned the individual expertise as the real power of Microsoft’s teamwork. He also moved to confirm the present leadership team, strongly emphasizing their abilities, and securing the value of continuity. Finally, he used the Microsoft rhetoric of “formula,” but tweaked so that he can insert his own strategy. In effect, Nadella affirms the traditions of the past while adapting them to the new leadership and the present. Implicitly, my post suggested that Nadella was a superb CEO choice, a conversationalist and leader par excellence.

Well, was the analysis correct? Just three years later, a March issue of The Economist had a two page article on Nadella and the (new) Microsoft. As the essay opines, ten years ago, visiting Microsoft was like a trip into enemy territory. Executives would fire words at reporters and if challenged, their body language would reflect what they were thinking and what Bill Gates often used to say, “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Today, the reporters reveal, the mood at Microsoft’s campus. . . is strikingly different. The word count per minute is much lower. Questions, however ignorant or critical are answered patiently. The firm’s boss, Satya Nadella, strikes a different and gentler tone. . . . (It points) to an underlying truth: how radically the world’s biggest software firm has changed in the short time since Mr. Nadella took charge in early 2014. Although the success rate of new CEOs is less than 50%, Nadella will not be in that group. The 2014 analysis was prescient: The massive culture change is indicative of Nadella’s success!

Psycho-Rhetorical skills
Although the study of rhetorical form displayed in the point/counterpoint analysis requires graduate study in psych and rhetoric and plenty of experience, there are a number of simpler psycho-rhetorical tools that many college grads can learn. Following is a little background and a few simple rules for the smart employee.

The vocabulary a person owns, more than the physical objects—the artifacts of the actual event, determines his or her response to the work world and the actual ways they work. Cognitive scientists, linguists and rhetoricians all stress that fact. Language not only shapes our behavior, but defines our intelligence—both practical and theoretical.

So take a person’s conversational language and engagement seriously. And pay close attention to their language quality–or lack of. The consistent use of simple sentences of 10 to 12 words can be revealing. And if the language is inevitably simplistic with no “ifs, ands or buts,” and no significant caveats, the person may not be able to work with complex projects. Obviously, there are plenty of people with these limitations, but smart managers can use their limited skill-base. Many of them are intensely loyal and hardworking. But overall, observe closely: does the person pay attention to context and give evidence of understanding the context? Can they verbalize the real complexity of situations? Like the Nadella interview, there’s a lot of revealing information about a person in their language choices.

A slightly more difficult competency, but one many professionals weigh into, is the subtext of a conversation. Listen for what’s not being said, but revealed in body language, silence or word accenting within the sentences.

In sum, assume that language is a mode or form of action, rather than merely a means for sharing information. Individuals are unique and in competition with each other linguistically—in spite of our many similarities. The sets of values, opinions and meanings are peculiar to each individual and the words and ideas chosen in conversation are reflective of that uniqueness. Nadella’s language was neither Steve Ballmer’s nor Bill Gates’. And Nadella’s language revealed a great deal about him and his future.


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