Google’s Lessons About Resuscitating Management

The tech world is known for its rebellious attitude towards everything that represents the conventional corporation (try to find one Googler wearing a suit and tie). Offices equipped with slides and nap pods scream that this is not your parent’s workplace. In this environment, management is often seen as a bastion of the old workplace hierarchy that just won’t die. As a result, more and more companies are turning to flat organizational alternatives that don’t rely on management. Are managers really necessary? In 2008 Google undertook a study to answer this question.

Google’s Lessons About Resuscitating Management

Resistance from Engineers and Millennials

The group that had the biggest problem with management was the company’s engineers. Engineers have reason to dislike bad management. This field in particular fosters creative individuals who have their own personal style of doing things. When someone tries to micromanage this type of worker it results in conflicts and a loss of interest. In Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google Laszlo Bock explained:

“Engineers generally think managers are at best a necessary evil, but mainly they get in the way, create bureaucracy, and screw things up.”

However, it’s not just engineer driven companies that are experiencing this transition. A survey by Virtuali found that 83% of millennials want fewer layers of management. This means they want managers who are easily approachable and willing to take their opinions into account. This is evident in today’s millennial led organizations that favor open work spaces where CEOs, managers and employees work alongside each other.

Leading gaming company Valve took it so far as to abolish the management level entirely, instead relying on a completely flat organizational structure. Avant garde shoe company Zappos has become well known for being the first large company to introduce holacracy, an organizational structure that focuses less on traditional management roles and more on autonomy. Google itself experimented with a flat structure in 2002 but had to revert back a few months later. Project Oxygen came about in 2008 as a means to address the management crisis.

Project Oxygen

In an environment where the conventional is always challenged, Google’s People Innovation Lab started Project Oxygen trying to prove that manager quality does not have an impact on performance. To prove this point they hired a group of statisticians to evaluate the differences between the highest and lowest rated managers. Data was collected using past performance appraisals, employee surveys, interviews and other sources of employee feedback.

However, instead they proved that good management actually makes a difference. To better define what makes a good manager they came up with a list of 8 qualities based on the data received.

Google’s Project Oxygen findings:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
  6. Helps with career development
  7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team

While this list seems obvious there were three reasons why it had such a big impact on management at Google. First, it was based on people analytics. At Google scientific evidence is key, therefore using people analytics gave the project greater credibility. The fact that it was based on employee feedback encouraged wider employee buy in and trust. Similarly, the hard data helped to convince managers why they needed to improve their management style.

Second, the interesting thing is that technical skills came in last. While it’s important that managers have the needed technical level to guide employees, soft skills such as coaching and communication are absolutely essential. This proves that being a great developer doesn’t necessarily make you a great manager.

Third, it provided a checklist of management qualities. As Bock explains in his book, whether or not your manager is well versed in management 101 and every training course your company offers, having a checklist makes a big difference as it actually reminds managers to remember and implement these skills on a daily basis.

As a result, Google changed its feedback surveys to mirror these qualities. Instead of simply measuring how much output a manager achieves, the surveys now focus on how much time they spend coaching their team, whether or not they communicate a clear vision, etc. They also developed new management training programs centered around these skills.

Donovan explained that, “Having a good manager is essential, like breathing. And if we make managers better it would be like a breath of fresh air.” As Google takes its No. 1 spot for the sixth year in a row in Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list, isn’t it time to try a new strategy for developing your managers?

How This Applies to Your Company

Great Employees Don’t Always Make Great Managers

Though it may be common sense that a company of engineers would value technical knowledge and ability in a manager, it is telling that this skill came in last place on Google’s list.  

Great employees don’t always make the best managers – some engineers may prefer to focus on their work. You have to have patience, great communication skills, the ability to see the big picture and create long term goals.

The problem is that the traditional company is based on linking promotions with higher levels of managerial responsibilities. It’s time for your company to rethink this strategy. Instead of putting people with great technical skills in management positions, put people with great leadership skills. Some companies have instituted dual tracks so that not everyone has to take the management path.

Become a Great Coach

Becoming a great coach, especially in the tech world, is essential. What engineers, developers and everyone under the sun really want is a manager who knows how to distinguish the line between coaching and micromanaging. To learn where this line lies, think about your employee. Are they an engineer with +5 years of experience? Then what they probably need most is a manager who will help them to set goals and then stand back and allow them to execute them in their own way (as long as this gets results). As a manager one of your most important responsibilities is to guide your employees towards goals that fall in line with your company’s objectives and and long term goals.

That being said, also allow some space for creativity. Google’s 20% time resulted in popular products such as Gmail and AdSense. While there are rumors that this is not an official policy of Google anymore, as a manager, encouraging employees to take some time to work on an innovative new project they’ve pitched can bring you great products and loyalty from motivated employees.

New engineers on the other hand may need more coaching. Here the line may become thinner but the best way to provide guidance while not encroaching on your employee’s freedom is through feedback.

Feedback Culture

Being able to give feedback the right way is the strongest tool in your management utility belt (think more Batman than Home Depot). Two-thirds of millennials believe it’s their manager’s responsibility to provide them with development opportunities. Despite this many managers are often hesitant to give constructive feedback to their employees, fearing their reaction. However, this is a major part of the development process, if your employees don’t know what they need to do to improve, their professional development could become stagnant.

Delivering well balanced actionable feedback is the answer. When you have to deliver constructive feedback, some managers balance it out by first explaining to their employee what they’re doing well. Always make sure your feedback places emphasis on actions and completely avoids personality traits. For example, “I noticed you talked over Mark in the meeting yesterday” rather than “You’re overbearing in meetings.” Always provide advice on how they can fix the situation and discuss the best solution. 

In return, it’s also important to millennials that managers are open to their feedback. This generation does not like to see hierarchal barriers that prevent their ideas from being heard.  This means that managers also have to be good, not only at receiving feedback, but also acting upon it.

Finally don’t forget that positive feedback is also needed. When your employee reaches an achievement a great coach always remembers to recognize them for their efforts.

Get to Know Your Employees

This is important both at a professional and personal level. Getting to know your employees’ strengths will help you give better feedback and show them you have a genuine interest in their career. Managers who know their employees’ strengths are 71% more likely to have people who are engaged and energized. Showing them you’re taking an interest in their career and professional goals will help you gain a loyal workforce.

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Steffen Maier

Steffen Maier is co-founder of Impraise a web-based and mobile solution for actionable, timely feedback at work. Based in New York and Amsterdam, Impraise turns tedious annual performance reviews into an easy process by enabling users to give and receive valuable feedback in real-time and when it’s most helpful. The tool includes an extensive analytics platform to analyze key strengths and predict talent gaps and coaching needs.


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