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Google breathes new life into its managers

Google has often been called the best place in the world to work. It provided free food, volley-ball courts and one day a week where engineers could just be ‘creative’. Now it has grown and has tens of thousands of employees and thousands of managers, some of whom were deemed to be poor.

Google determined to build better bosses.

Google discovered the biggest variable among employees’ reasons for leaving Google, was the quality of their managers and so it decided to tackle the issue of poor management, by studying its own mass of data. Google ran all its performance appraisals, feedback surveys and hiring records through its systems, to rank the traits of a good manager, in an exercise called Oxygen.

Google’s head of HR, Laszlo Bock, said: “We’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you. It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

Poor managers affected performance and satisfaction, while good managers had better performing and happier teams. Google’s statisticians analysed their data, in an attempt to discover what made a good manager.

They mined the data, read the interviews and turned the information they gleaned into code. They now use the information in the hiring process and in training their managers. The aim is to minimise common biases, such as managers hiring people who are similar to themselves.

Google saw the ‘halo/horns’ effect in operation, where one personal trait can cloud everything else; for example, appearance, or technical savvy, positive or negative, can overshadow all other qualities or defects in an employee.

The overriding Google culture was always targeted towards engineers, with programming prowess trumping a plethora of managerial failings. Employees, however, valued technical expertise much less in their managers. Project Oxygen told them that employees were looking for eight behavioural traits in managers.

With technical expertise ranked eighth, employees wanted even-keeled bosses, who made time for face-to-face meetings, helped solve problems by asking questions and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

Many poor managers had contributed to the comany’s success, but were not natural leaders, were inconsistent in their treatment of others and spent too little time managing and communicating. Google says that the coaching systems it has set up from its Oxygen findings, have improved the performance of 75% of its worst performing managers.

The coaching is respected because the data has been generated internally, rather than dropped on them by an external HR consultant. That said, it is quite possible that your company will receive an email from Google soon, offering to do something remarkably similar for you.

Nigel Phillips

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