Google’s plan to engineer better bosses (continued)

Google’s plan to engineer better bosses (continued)

As we saw previously, in early 2009, Google launched a vast internal study designed to determine and share the characteristics of the company’s best managers. Statisticians examined more than 10,000 observations about managers, gleaned from performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. They looked at more than 100 variables, correlating words, phrases, elements of praise, and complaints.

In the first phase of Project Oxygen, the team defined the characteristics of an outstanding boss, what a New York Times article termed the “Eight Habits of Highly Successful Google Managers.”

At first glance, and taken in no particular order, the most striking aspect of the eight directives is perhaps how simple and obvious they appear to be:

“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.”

“Have key technical skills so you can advise them.”

“Empower your team and don’t micromanage.”

“Be a good coach.”

“Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being.”

“Be a good communicator and listen to your team.”

Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for people operations, was somewhat taken aback by the straightforward and self-evident nature of the conclusions, derived from such an in-depth piece of cutting-edge research. His first reaction after reading the report was “that’s it?”

It was in a second phase, when the Project Oxygen group began ranking the eight elements by level of importance, that the results became far more enlightening. When the research team performed lengthy interviews with managers to gather more data and synthesize the results, a surprising trend emerged. In some ways, information from these interviews turned notions of management at Google upside-down.

In reflecting on these results, we should emphasize again a crucial point about Project Oxygen: Google used hard data, generated internally. Collecting and analyzing this type of information allows them to steer clear of the skepticism that high-tech workers tend to have toward management surveys.

As I have often seen in my work with technology companies, engineers in particular have a tendency to harbor a bias against the human resource function and its research; HR is often accused of being a “soft” science, relying more on gut and instinct than on factual analysis.

Studies such as Project Oxygen may help diminish this anti-HR bias. With the capability of managing information in ways that have never existed before, today’s forward-looking organizations can apply data-driven approaches to the often-irrational world of human behavior and interaction. Google will be a company to watch as data mining methods evolve, since they will most likely stay at the forefront of this noteworthy trend.

When a company can use its own data, as Google did, the findings have far more weight than generic models and lists of what a person should do to be a good manager. The research tells people exactly what works in their environment. And, perhaps above all, it gives top management a clear and sometimes surprising view of what employees value in their bosses.

In Google’s case, the most unexpected result for company leaders was that employees ranked the single characteristic Google had always considered most important in its managers—deep technical expertise—dead last. Additionally, it turns out that the hands-off approach that Google and other high-tech startups often espouse was not at all what employees wanted.

Using internal data removes an argument that I have heard over and over in my work with technology companies: “Our environment is not that of a normal business.” In fact, Google people had assumed for years that they operated in a unique context. After all, they were the world’s “hottest” tech company, with colossal resources. They could hire young, energetic problem solvers—some of the world’s best and most innovative individuals. In this environment, they reasoned, a manager needs to be an expert who can resolve the technical obstacles that are holding people back.

But, according to Bock, “It turns out that [technical prowess] is absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is making that connection and being accessible.”

What people value most, according to Google’s study, are fair and even-keeled bosses who make time for one-on-one meetings, and who take an interest in their subordinates’ lives and careers. In the end, what employees seem to want is quite simple: personal relationships with their bosses.

Far more than managers with technical expertise, people want bosses who make connections with them and give them face-to-face time. More than asking that their bosses help them through their technology problems, they are saying “please get to know me as a person.” Interesting…

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