January 30, 2015

The (Very Simple) Google Guide to Management

The fine people at Google are the kings of rounding up strings of data and telling us what it all means. The company is, by all accounts, the absolute leader in driving the transformation of classic business models into digital numbers games. Based on this reputation, you’d expect the release of Google’s internal Project Oxygen audit and its “eight habits of highly efficient managers” memo to be a game-changer filled with complex stats and charts, but the most striking thing about its conclusions is just how traditional they are. Instead of hyping the conversion of all office minutiae into productivity metrics, the report states that the most important aspects of management are, in fact, little more than basic people skills that come from maintaining respectful communication with every member of your team.

Google worked from a conclusion that is hardly controversial but deserves to be noted: relations with management have a greater impact on employee performance and satisfaction levels than any other factor. Essentially, if you don’t like your boss, chances are fairly good that you won’t like your job either, and most employees will (under)perform accordingly. The process that guided this drawn-out survey was downright medieval: Google simply conducted a series of extended interviews, reviewed the notes from each, and drew conclusions. Of course Google is a data company, so parts of the project did come back to the sort of thing they do best, like using code to search for statistical patterns in the language of 10,000 employees describing their managers.

The complaints and the solutions that arose from Project Oxygen will sound very familiar to anyone who has worked in an office at some point over the last 50 years. Some sample phrases used to describe an unpopular manager: “…bossy, arrogant, political, secretive. [His employees] wanted to quit his team.” Among the eight habits that Google recommends for all managers lay these gems: “Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.” “Don’t be a sissy. Be productive and results-oriented.” The list goes on. And yet, we would be doing ourselves a disservice by downplaying the validity of this work; it’s actually refreshing to think that the secrets of successful management boil down to “give clear and direct feedback to the people [you] serve.”

Did Google really need to go to all this trouble to figure out the obvious answers to obvious questions? That’s hard to say, but whatever inspired them to run with this project, their work seems to have paid off: the company now reports that 75% of its least popular managers have mended their approval ratings since the company began incorporating Project Oxygen’s results into training and performance review sessions. Google also plans to apply the Oxygen guidelines to HR procedures after discovering (get ready for a shock) that managers like to hire people who remind them of themselves and that this practice is sometimes counterproductive.

Again, as obvious as this all may seem, we could learn a bit from Google. Their primary takeaways: managerial quality drives individual performance and team cohesion, which in turn drives the overall success of the company. If employees don’t like or respect those directly above them, they have little reason to put in an exceptional performance. So what do employees want from their managers? Consistency, respect, and time. Seems simple enough.

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