Designing better bosses for a new generation

Designing better bosses for a new generation

For the past few weeks, we have been discussing Google’s Project Oxygen, their plan to define the attributes of the best bosses at the company and to use these characteristics as guidelines to improve the performance of every manager.

What are some of the things we might learn from Google’s research? Though the findings come from inside one remarkably successful and forward-thinking organization, how might the lessons apply to the rest of the world, particularly to those of us who manage in more mundane, everyday environments?

To me, there are a number of far-reaching implications of Project Oxygen. This week, I focus on two of them, and then next week on two more.

1. The notion that technology can replace management is perhaps a misconception.

Today’s common wisdom says that young knowledge workers see little value in reporting to someone who keeps track of what they do or provides technical assistance, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine.

Representative of this point of view is a Harvard Business Review article from January 2011, in which London Business School professor Lynda Gratton writes that technology will become the new middle manager. In “The End of the Middle Manager” she states that many of the functions of a middle manager can now be performed without human intervention, since technology “can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports and presentations.”

Moreover, the article asserts that today’s knowledge workers are often engineers organized in highly skilled teams that are increasingly self-managed. Thanks to the Internet and search engines, everyone can know something about everything. If the middle manager was once a source of knowledge and information, Google and Wikipedia can now perform this function.

The findings of Project Oxygen seem to refute the idea that the modern technical worker prefers to be left alone, or that technology and self-managing groups will lead to the demise of the middle manager. The concept that high-tech companies, or any company for that matter, will require fewer managers discounts completely the manager’s vital role in personal development. More than anything else, people’s growth is influenced by the quality of direct contact with their boss.

2. There is a mistaken impression that a new generation of workers does not want to be managed.

In conversations in the workplace and in business schools, as well as in numerous articles of the past few years, we have been told all about why the Millennial Generation is different. They grew up with technology; they are problem solvers who like to be left alone. They are free spirits who move from task to task and do not like to make commitments.

Now, I would not contend that members of this generation are not different from their elders. Some of the recent research is demonstrating that they are not motivated as much by the need for job security or by the desire for long-term belonging to an organization. They are quite comfortable moving to a new project or a new company when a more interesting opportunity presents itself.

At the same time, an enlightening piece in the current issue of Strategy and Business asserts that many of the stereotypes associated with this generation of worker may be erroneous. In “Five Millennial Myths”, Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, writes that her in-depth studies reveal little fundamental difference from earlier eras with respect to what young workers seek in their jobs. Similarly to previous generations, people entering the workforce are looking for meaning in their work and in their relationships with bosses and colleagues.

The findings of Project Oxygen appear to bear out the conclusions of Deal’s research. Above all else, the workers at Google want managers who give them face-to-face time, and who connect with them in ways that help them learn and grow.

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