Building a Better Boss? As Google Found, It’s Simpler Than You Think

Leave it to Google to be the company that believed they could figure out how to build a better boss.

According to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, the effort was code named Project Oxygen, and Google applied the same sort of rigorous technical evaluation to the project — “analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys, and nominations for top-manager awards….(correlating) phrases, words, praise and complaints” — that they might apply to, say, figuring out how to provide news without involving any human editors.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Google developing an algorithm that could somehow take this very human activity and make it something very different. They found that the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers” that they came up with were, as the Times put it, “forehead-slappingly obvious” so much so that “it’s hard to believe that it took the mighty Google so long to figure them out.”

What Google found out about management

Here are a few examples:

  • 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.”

“My first reaction was, that’s it?” says Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for “people operations,” which is Googlespeak for human resources.

The thing that surprised Bock, but will probably come as no surprise to most HR people and managers who deal with engineers or technical people, is this, the Times reports:

Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

In the Google context, 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,” Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

Pardon me while I sit here shocked for a moment, because it isn’t much of a generalization to say that engineers and people with a strong technical bent are usually terrible when it comes to people skills — the very keys to a strong manager. That Bock and the Google team would find that employees ranked technical expertise so low in a survey about management skills shows just how deep in the sand their heads are over at Google when it comes to having some intuitive knowledge of what makes good managers tick.

Putting Project Oxygen to work

Think I’m broad-brushing technical people this way? Maybe, but I’ve dealt with way too many tech people to not see that this lack of a people-skills gene is probably what makes someone a good engineer in the first place. And, I am reminded of it every time I deal with my Boeing engineer neighbor who seems to have zero capacity to deal with anyone else on the block the way normal, personable humans would.

The Times story points out that Google WAS able to apply their legendary focus to Project Oxygen they way they do anything else they set their sights on.

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HR has long run on gut instincts more than hard data. But a growing number of companies are trying to apply a data-driven approach to the unpredictable world of human interactions…

In Project Oxygen, the statisticians gathered more than 10,000 observations about managers — across more than 100 variables, from various performance reviews, feedback surveys and other reports. Then they spent time coding the comments in order to look for patterns…

Once Google had its list, the company started teaching it in training programs, as well as in coaching and performance review sessions with individual employees. It paid off quickly.

“We were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of our worst-performing managers,” Bock says…

Google executives say they aren’t crunching all this data to develop some algorithm of successful management. The point, they say, is to provide the data and to make people aware of it, so that managers can understand what works and, just as important, what doesn’t.”

Effective leadership? Not much has changed

I’m all for anything that can help improve management and managers, because we don’t have a lot of Peter Drucker’s out there today who are breaking new ground and revealing wonderful new insights. And Drucker would probably be amused by this very interesting observation gleaned from Google’s Project Oxygen efforts — when it comes to management and leadership, not much has really changed.

“Although people are always looking for the next new thing in leadership,” said D. Scott DeRue, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who talked to The New York Times, “Google’s data suggest that not much has changed in terms of what makes for an effective leader.”

THAT may actually be the most important thing to come out of Project Oxygen. Yes, Google will undoubtedly be able to improve their managers with the research and insights they will get from the project, but in the end, they will know something else important too: management ain’t rocket science, nor is it computer engineering or something that can be solved and perfected with a snazzy new algorithm.

No, managing and leading people is about listening, helping them with what they need to do a better job, taking time when they need it, showing them where everything is going, and staying consistent.

I love Google, but isn’t it just like them to spend so much time, effort, and energy on something they could have gotten from just talking to any smart HR person — or cracking open a Peter Drucker book or two?

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


4 Comments on “Building a Better Boss? As Google Found, It’s Simpler Than You Think

  1. Hey John, thanks for the great post. I appreciate the depth you’ve gone into.

    To your point that their tips and tricks are pretty straight forward and probably could come from “any smart HR person,” I’d ask: if these ideas are so easy, why isn’t everyone a great boss?

    Thing is, it’s usually the easiest, most simple ideas that we forget and that get lost in our complex brains. What we all need is a simple, but effective way to implement these “slappingly obvious” plans to become a better boss.

    Rypple CEO, Daniel Debow wrote an article this morning to explain exactly that: Two ways Rypple helps you to implement Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss (
    Check it out – I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. Great point, Alanah. Yes, if it were so easy,why ISN’T everyone a great boss?

    I think this is what Google found out that they are now leveraging — it is about coaching managers and helping them with their execution. They are using the results of Project Oxygen, it seems, to train managers and help them execute better in their management roles.

    Some people come to management easily, but most of us need to work at it. I’ll check out Daniel Debow’s article, but my point here is that it is not hard to find just what makes a great manager despite Google trying to apply analytics to the process. The problem is, as with so many things in life, knowing what it takes is not the same as taking the time to get it done.

  3. I agree 100% that some people come to management easily, basically innately. It seems Google did a little too much Googleling on this one, and got way to analytical. A good manager is like a good PR person, someone who can communicate with the publics, get the message across, and just be an overall accessible advocate.

  4. Great article John. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my ezine list.

    RE: the question “If it’s so easy, why isn’t everyone a great boss?”

    I agree with your “knowing what it takes is to the same as taking the time to get it done.” That’s one of my big concerns in today’s workplace. Managers are so overwhelmed, they forget to do the little things that make a huge difference in whether their employees CARE about doing a great job, and are ABLE to do a great job–things like listening, catching people doing things right, expressing appreciation, showing you care about them as a person, reminding them of how what they do makes a difference, etc.

    Here are a few other points that come into play, I believe:

    1) There’s a huge difference between knowing WHAT is important and knowing HOW to do it.

    For instance, most managers know that’s its important to ask employees for input, yet when working with managers and posing the questions “What do you do after you encourage employees to become involved and give input, and an employee gives you an idea that you think doesn’t have a chance of working. What do you do?”

    Almost without exception, the first recommendation is: “That’s a great idea, but…” and then they proceed to explain why it’s not a great idea.

    Lesson learned by employee?

    – Don’t bother to offer ideas to my boss…just do my job.

    – My boss lies. Seconds after saying it’s a great idea, he proceeds to tell me it isn’t. Question..what else does he lie about?

    So, one of the major skill set deficits I see that creates a gap between having good intentions and being able to bring out the best in employees are the interpersonal skills, such as how to give feedback in a way that doesn’t trigger defensiveness.

    2) Overwhelm Leads to Mindlessness – There’s also the busyness factor you mention, which leads to a lack of mindfulness, and therefore self-awareness. Couple this with a lack of feedback when you’re in a position of power, and you have an unfortunate recipe for interpersonal cluelessness which can wreak havoc with employee engagement and performance.

    Because all but the most assertive “subordinates” are reluctant to give their boss negative feedback about the annoying and engagement-damaging things they do (because they, just like all of us, aren’t perfect and have blind spots), most bosses don’t realize the many different ways they are shooting themselves in the foot…and end up believing they’re doing a fine job.

    3) The Desire for a Magic Bullet – Since we all have a tendency to want a magic bullet or quick fix, I think management teams are always looking for the next management fad that will be “the thing”, rather than doing the arduous work of focusing on, and executing on the fundamentals that bring out the best in people. One of the things I try to stress is “Stay Away From The Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events” and focus on the fundamentals.

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