In July 2001, three years into the company he founded with Sergey Brin, Google CEO Larry Page decided to fire all of his managers.
It was his statement against corporate bureaucracy, but it was soon reversed. And eventually Page determined that managers were a necessary evil at Google.
By 2008, however, there was still a gap between many of the engineers and their managers, Google’s SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock writes in his book “Work Rules!.” A team was tasked with bridging this gap, and in the process discovered what makes a great manager.
Michelle Donovan, director of talent development, and Neal Patel, technical project lead of the human/social dynamics program, wanted to determine a way to optimise management and have it organically fit within Google’s unique culture.
Their undertaking, named Project Oxygen, found that employees who had switched from the lowest quartile of managers (those with relatively bad performance and unhappy teams) to the highest quartile of managers (those with the best performance and happiest teams) performed better.
Donovan and Patel used their research to develop a semiannual “Upward Feedback Survey,” a checklist that employees use to anonymously rate their managers. Each manager then gets a report with percentages of favourable answers, measured against their last report and the global average. They’re strongly encouraged to share the results with their team to foster a discussion on how to lead better.
The surveys are subject to change, but Bock provides a sample survey that he considers inclusive. “If you perform every behaviour on the list, you’ll be an amazing manager,” he writes.
Here are the nine behaviours this survey judges managers on:
- They give actionable feedback that helps their employees improve their performance.
- They do not micromanage by getting involved in details that should be handled at other levels.
- They show consideration for their employees as individuals.
- They keep their team focused on its priority results/deliverables.
- They regularly share with their team relevant information from their own manager and senior leadership.
- They have meaningful discussions about career development with each member of their team at least once every six months.
- They communicate clear goals for their team.
- They possess the technical expertise required to effectively manage their team.
- Their employees would recommend them to their colleagues.
Bock writes that these surveys have resulted in better managers. The average overall score for managers across Google rose from 83% in 2010 to to 88% in 2012, and the lowest quartile of managers’ overall score rose from 70% to 77%.
Bock says he’s seen the results firsthand. The first time he had his team take the survey, he averaged 77% favourable across the 15 questions asked that year, placing him below average. And only half his team felt he gave clear performance evaluations.
He says he was terrified. “I’m in charge of all this stuff for the company! I’m supposed to be the expert!” he remembers thinking.
He went over the results with his team and determined how he could communicate more effectively with them, which proved to benefit all involved.
“I’m still far from perfect (90% favourable overall), but managed to get my rating up to 100% favourable in giving quality feedback, and 100% of my team would now recommend me as a manager,” Bock writes.
He considers Project Oxygen an ongoing success at changing the concept of managers at a company that was once hostile to them.
“And since we know that manager quality drives performance, retention, and happiness, it means the company will perform better over time,” Bock writes.