Speaking at DICE 2018 in Las Vegas this morning, Xbox boss Phil Spencer drew parallels between the best virtual worlds and a successful and inclusive company culture.
He said at Microsoft, the company underwent a major cultural refresh with the appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO. At that time, morale at Microsoft was low, and infighting was a common occurrence.
Spencer said low morale and a failure of trust between leadership and employees also took its toll within the Xbox group specifically. “We hadn’t done our best with the launch of Xbox One. Market share was taking a nosedive,” he said. On top of that, employees felt the leadership seemed tone deaf to what customers wanted.
But with Nadella at the helm, Spencer said, “we hit refresh on everything,” and Microsoft moved from a “know it all” culture to a “learn it all” culture.
Spencer compared worldbuilding in video games to worldbuilding when it comes to corporate and team culture. “If the core mechanics of our own internal team work and the team accomplishes great things, that’s our aspiration.”
For Spencer, much of his corporate worldbuilding philosophy is rooted in constructing teams that are inclusive of people of all race, gender, sexual orientation, geographical regions, and abilities. Representation matters not just in the games people make, but also in terms of company culture.
"Toxic behavior doesn't just hurt an individual. It hurts our community."
That team inclusiveness translates into games those teams make. He shared an example within Minecraft, where the main characters’ jobs fit into stereotypical gender roles; when a Minecraft team leader pointed this out, the team fixed the game to be more inclusive in that regard.
“Representation isn’t just good common sense, it’s good business sense,” Spencer said.
He went on to address lessons he’s learned along the way, while Microsoft has been hitting “refresh” over the past few years.
One lesson was empathy and trust within a team. He said to listen and to address the worries of a team, and trust them. Once that trust is established, it will go both ways.
Another lesson is accountability. He referenced a Microsoft-run party held at GDC 2016 that featured scantily-clad dancers, drawing backlash from attendees. He reiterated that that was “unequivocally wrong” and that “it’s the leader’s job to absorb the hit…and to be clear about our culture and what we stand for.”
A third lesson is to have a growth mindset, Spencer said. Learn from mistakes, be active readers, and focus on learning. “One of my biggest areas of a growth leader is to listen first instead of jumping in with supposed answers,” he said.
Another lesson is listening and amplifying people who are less willing to speak up. “Some people are just quieter,” he said. “Oftentimes, the best ideas and solutions come from the quiet ones.” Small adjustments can be made here as well, such as making sure to give people credit for ideas.
Lastly, he highlighted leadership principles which are to create clarity, generate energy for the team, and to deliver success.
By focusing on a strong corporate culture that follows these lessons, it creates an environment that is reflected in the products a company makes. Likewise, a toxic work environment can lead to toxic communities.
While Spencer said he’s heard stories that make him feel good about game communities that he helped create, there are still so many stories of players who don’t feel welcomed by communities due to their gender, race, or otherwise.
Spencer said the world of creators and the world of gamers needs a “refresh.”
“What core mechanics are working in our game culture," he asked. "And what’s not?”
He added that toxic communities are a “failure” on a company’s part. “Toxic behavior doesn't just hurt an individual. It hurts our community.”
Spencer asked developers at DICE an important question: “What world do you want to build?”
“When we truly design for all," he added. "We help [make] the world equal for all.”