How Google Convinced Its Engineers That Managers Matter

Google is well known for an intensely data-focused human resources and management strategy. Yet one of its biggest tasks has been convincing its many engineers that their bosses are valuable.

A fascinating new feature in the Harvard Business Review explains in depth how Google’s HR employees answered a question that’s dogged the company since its founding: Do managers matter?

The reflexive position for engineers, Google’s key internal constituency, is that managers are unnecessary, adding layers of bureaucracy, slowing down great ideas, and taking away from “real work.”

But when the company experimented with having no engineering managers whatsoever in 2002, it just didn’t work. Small personal issues often went all the way to the CEO’s level. On the other hand, micromanagement drives people away from companies, since they tend to find it stifling and belittling.

At the end of the day, after a massive multi-year research project called “Project Oxygen,” which measured key management behaviours and their impact using exit interviews, surveys, and performance reviews, the company found that good managers do matter — a lot. Their teams have lower turnover and score higher on metrics measuring happiness.

Google found that the best managers share these eight traits:

1. Is a good coach.

2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage.

3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.

4. Is productive and results-oriented.

5. Is a good communicator — listens and shares information.

6. Helps with career development.

7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team.

8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team.

No. 2 might be the most important at a company chock full of engineers. People who already doubt managers’ utility and are used to working on discrete goal-oriented tasks don’t want to feel smothered.

It carries through in the way the whole company is organised. Google has more than 37,000 employees, but only 5,000 managers, 1,000 directors, and 100 vice presidents. Engineering managers can have as many as 30 direct reports, according to the HBR article.

“There is only so much you can meddle when you have 30 people on your team, so you have to focus on creating the best environment for engineers to make things happen,” Google engineer Eric Flatt says.

The article describes how Google approaches each of those traits, breaking them down into specific behaviours and best practices that managers are measured, advised, and trained on.

So it isn’t just about avoiding micromanagement; it’s that the highest-rated managers also balance freedom with being available for advice, give assignments that let people stretch, make it clear that they trust their reports, and advocate for them with higher-level people.

Here are some best practices in Google employees’ own words from the piece:

On avoiding micromanagement:

“He doesn’t micromanage me, is very logical, and is willing to listen to you and not run an evil agenda. He is very respectful …. I would not think about leaving Google as long as he is my manager.”

On balancing freedom and advice:

“He encourages people to run with ideas but knows when to step in and offer advice not to pursue a failing issue.”

On trust:

“She cultivates a culture of accountability while not losing sight of the fact that we can enjoy work. She knows she hired an excellent team, and she shares the fact that she [trusts] us.”

And though engineers might not like lots of input on their work, they love it when managers are deeply involved in the close management of their careers. Particularly at Google, which is relatively flat, managers have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to create career development beyond promotion, like the opportunity to take on and take ownership of bigger projects.

Identifying the best traits and behaviours of managers is just one step. Managers aren’t just given the eight rules listed above. They also get feedback from the People Operations department on employees’ assessments of their performance on each trait, information on best practices, and suggestions on classes they can take to improve any areas of weakness.

Though the project succeeded in both convincing people of the necessity of management, and getting them to contribute to constantly improving it, Google plans to continue its research.

According to Prasad Setty, who leads analytics for the People Operations department, the company is now trying to analyse the managers’ assessment scores by their personality types to find more patterns and more areas to improve.

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