Designing better bosses for a new generation, continued

Designing better bosses for a new generation, continued

Last time, we looked at two of the lessons from Google’s Project Oxygen, their effort to build better managers. Now we focus on two additional things we might discern from Google’s findings, so I am labeling them lessons 3 and 4. Despite the fact that this is one company’s internal research, and as such designed to be specific to that environment, I see these lessons as applying generally to a wide range of today’s organizations.

3. Good managers still have a significant influence on group performance.

As I have written previously on several occasions, we should not believe that the rise of the information economy will lessen the importance of middle managers in our organizations. In fact, after years of thinking that technical workers wanted to be left alone, Google was somewhat surprised to see the impact that good bosses could have on teams of engineers, and this revelation led to their desire to explore the details of this management phenomenon. So, even before performing the research, they had come to recognize that managers could indeed make a difference.

Accordingly, Project Oxygen came into existence because Google’s “people operations” group observed striking differences in results between teams that were managed well and those that were not. Such was the variance between the top teams and the others that the HR researchers decided to focus on the quality of the manager as the most important controllable factor that would improve the performance of Google’s work groups.

Hence, the notion that helping bosses become more effective could make people happier and the company better was a given from the start. On the other hand, what surprised the people operations group was how quickly managers were able to improve in noticeable ways.

Once they had the list of best management practices, the company began using it in its training programs, as well as in coaching and review sessions with individual employees.  Very rapidly, they noted a statistically significant improvement in quality for 75 percent of the worst performers among the managers. When they gave individual coaching to some of their most heavy-handed managers, subordinates observed a marked difference within six months, in almost every case.

4. The qualities that make a manager excellent have changed little over time.

We seem to hear more each day about the impact of technology in the workplace, or about evolution in the mentality of the labor force. In companies and in seminar rooms, we talk at great length about what all this change will mean. And, while the world is certainly changing in some dramatic ways, what strikes me in Google’s study is how much the fundamentals of leadership have stayed the same.

As a lecturer in leadership at a wide variety of venues around the world, I find that people are constantly looking for the “next new thing” for managers or leaders. Thus, it is interesting that Google’s data suggest that not much has changed in terms of what makes a boss effective. People want leaders who give them time, treat them as individuals, challenge them and help them grow.

It also strikes me that Google’s findings fit well with a concept that I have been advocating with my clients for more than a decade: slow management. Basically, “slow” management is about taking the time to truly put human beings at the center of the enterprise. For managers at all levels, it means finding more contact points with subordinates, using quiet moments to engage employees in conversation, and taking a personal interest in them and their career development.

Project Oxygen illustrates that, despite all our modern advances in technology, leadership remains a contact sport. As HR director Laszlo Bock says, the most important trait of Google’s best managers is “making that connection and being accessible.”

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