In 2009 Google began an internal initiative called Project Oxygen in order to better understand what makes an effective Google manager.
They analyzed more than 10,000 observations about managers, including 100 variables on things like performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.
This data-driven method for improving managers was based on the premise that Google workers are different from other workers.
In the end, Project Oxygen’s statisticians came up with eight directives that separate good managers from bad managers. These include such common sense things like:
“Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.”
“Help your employees with career development.”
“Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.”
What Google found in its research is that employees most valued managers with people skills, not technical ones. Rather than being told what to do, employees want to be helped through figuring out problems for themselves.
“Although people are always looking for the next new thing in leadership,” says D. Scott DeRue, a management professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “Google’s data suggest that not much has changed in terms of what makes for an effective leader.”
According to a recent article in the The New York Times, Google’s “people operations” group, led by Laszlo Bock, “found that technical expertise—the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep—ranked dead last” among the list of Google’s eight main habits of effective managers.
Bock admitted they had assumed managers needed to have deep technical knowledge in order to effectively manage other engineers. Turns out this is the least important of the top eight qualities.
Project Oxygen discovered that two of the most important things managers can do is make time for their people and be consistent. It turns out these two things are more important than doing all of the other things.
This is not unique to Google, of course. Today’s workers need to connect with their teams and especially their immediate supervisors. It’s not that we are especially insecure and need constant feedback on what we do, but we are often isolated from the end product or bigger picture and it’s hard to know whether or not we’re doing a good job and whether we matter.
Connecting with the people who work for you and giving feedback more often than an annual performance review can be a powerful motivator.
Research suggests that employees join a company due to its reputation and they leave a company primarily due to their manager. Google’s data confirmed that managers have a much greater impact on employees’ performance and how they feel about their job than any other factor.
Soft skills, the very things that are so difficult to quantify and aren’t easily recognizable on resumes, really do make a difference in how people manage others.
As I wrote in a previous post with regard to what employees say they want from their managers, the first three are all in the category of soft skills. These are:
1. Full appreciation for work done
2. Feeling ‘part’ of things
3. Sympathetic help on personal issues
Many managers reading this may find these are not at all consistent with their own employees who surely want more tangible things like good wages, job security and promotions. But these results have been consistent over the last thirty years.
Google has grown incredibly fast since its founding in 1998. They expertly navigated this growth by hiring smart technical people and let them figure out how best to get things done. Now they need to shift the focus on replicating the people skills of their most effective managers so they can continue this growth.