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Google Employees Believe That Technical Expertise Doesn’t Make You a Great Boss

Monday, March 5, 2018
Fatou Darboe
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Are you a great manager? Most people aren’t.

Even managers at Google, the most powerful tech company whose algorithms have greatly impacted and shaped the way we use the internet, have trouble managing effectively.

That is why Google went on a quest to build a better manager.

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Image credit: Android Authority

The New York Times published an article in 2011 on Google’s quest, known as “Project Oxygen.” 

Google applied several scientific methods to analyze what makes an effective manager and created a series of eight commandments called “The Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.”

The most interesting finding was that technical expertise does not make a highly effective manager. In fact, technical expertise is last of the eight habits.

Let’s take a look at Google’s study and analyze whether or not their management algorithm is one you can use at your own company.

Managing a Team Effectively is Highly Important and Difficult

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Image credit: Business Insider

Managing people is difficult. It is arguably the most difficult part of being a leader. But it is highly important to do it right as it greatly determines a team’s success, morale, productivity and a company’s bottom-line and reputation.

The primary reasons why people leave a company is because they either do not have a sense of purpose in their work, feel disconnected to the company’s mission, don’t like their co-workers or have a bad boss. It is sometimes a combination of all those factors.

Business Insider conducted a survey, a while back, about why people quit their jobs. They found that 41 percent of respondents quit because they disliked their boss.

So there is a lot riding on being an effective and good boss.

That is one of the reasons why Google decided to take a deep look at what makes a great manager. Here’s what they think.

Project Oxygen

The initial motivation for Google’s study was trying to prove that managers do not actually matter – that managerial qualities do not impact a team’s performance. That assumption was based on a widely-held belief among Google’s leaders that managers were just a necessary evil and only there for bureaucratic reasons.

Prior to the study, Google also thought that technical expertise was the top trait of effective managers. (Not surprising considering the two co-founders were two Stanford University dropouts and the person they made CEO actually had a PhD in computer science.)

Google, being good at data-mining, started off by defining manager quality using performance ratings and manager feedback from quarterly employee surveys. (The tech company does performance reviews quarterly and saw significant swings in ratings of managers.) 

The data revealed that managers had more of an impact on employee performance, and how they felt about their job than any other factor

That knowledge, however, doesn’t explain what makes managers great and effective.

In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, said, “the starting point was that our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better.

So the biggest controllable factor that we could see was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen. The question we then asked was: What if every manager was that good? And then you start saying: Well, what makes them that good? And how do you do it?”

So statisticians put together over 10,000 observations about managers, that spanned more than 100 variables and then coded them in order to find patterns.

Once they found some notable patterns and some theories, they asked employees about managers; interviewed managers to gather more data and look for evidence to support their theories; and then parsed through the comments and performance reviews.

They then correlated words, phrases, complaints and praises; coded and synthesized the results; and found ten common behaviors that high-scoring managers exhibited.

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Image credit: Google

The aim of the study then evolved to providing data to make managers aware of what works and what doesn’t; and incorporate those findings into training programs.

So the people analytics team got to work and came up with eight habits of highly effective google managers.

Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers

Business Insider synthesized the eight habits as follows:

1. Be a Good Coach

  • Provide clear and concise feedback that is constructive. It should balance the negative and the positive.
  • Have consistent one-on-ones with employees and present solutions to problems that are specifically tailored to the employee’s strengths.

2. Empower Your Team and Don’t Micromanage

  • Give freedom to your employees but also make sure you are available or accessible when they need you.
  • Make “stretch” assignments (an assignment, given to an employee, that is beyond their current skill level in order to “stretch” them developmentally) to enable them to tackle big problems.

3. Express Interest in Employee’s Success and Well-Being

  • Get to know your employees on a personal level. Exchange stories about your lives outside of work, i.e. hobbies, interests, etc.
  • Make new employees feel welcome to help ease the transition.

4. Be Productive and Results-Oriented

  • Focus on your vision for the team: what you want them to achieve and how employees can help to achieve that vision.
  • Help the team prioritize work and make strategic decisions to eliminate roadblocks.

5. Be a Good Communicator and Listen to Your Team

  • Encourage the team to ask questions and actively listen to their questions and concerns.
  • Hold regular team meetings and be specific about the team’s goals.

6. Help Your Team with Career Development

  • Provide your teams with multiple ways to grow their careers.
  • Connect your team with mentors, training and any resources they many need.

7. Have a Clear Vision and Strategy

  • Always reinforce your company’s strategy during team meetings.
  • Make sure that strategy and vision is clear to them.
  • Even amid chaos, keep your team focused on the vision and strategy.
  • Involve the team in setting the vision and strategy every step of the way.

8. Have Key Technical Skills and Use Them

  • Work side-by-side with the team when needed. Employees learn by example.
  • Understand the key challenges of the work.

Huh, those habits do make rational sense. Many of them like, “be a good communicator,” seem to be very common knowledge. So did Google need to use deep analytics to arrive at that point? Can mere analytics turn a bad manager into a good one?

Do Those 8 Habits Actually Create Great Managers?

Google thinks so.

Their incorporation of those leadership qualities into training programs quickly paid off for them.

Google reported that one of their most difficult and unpopular managers showed some improvement after following the eight rules. He, however, didn’t become a great manager. Bock said they “were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of our worst-performing managers.”

But can you use them in your organization to build better managers and consequently create better teams?

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Image credit: Business Insider UK

We all know that Google prefers to build its own models. They understand what works for them and feel like those eight habits of good leadership are more specific to their company, rather than just any other company.

The fact that the study was based on Google’s own data made it more pertinent to Google’s employees, because it was more aligned with Google’s unique culture.

So, those habits may or may not turn you into a great leader, unless you work at Google. Perhaps technical expertise matters more at your company?

Why Technical Expertise May Be More Important for Your Company Than Google Makes It Seem

We tend to believe that leadership skills are transferable. If you inspired or motivated people to be the best they can be and to do their best at your previous company, you should be able to apply those leadership qualities or skills to inspire and motivate employees at a new company, right? 

Not exactly.

Recent research has made us question this way of thinking. Studies say that the most effective leaders have technical expertise in the industry or niche in which they are leading. And that is what makes them effective leaders.

Just to use an example, a study found that hospitals that are led by doctors perform better than those led by people from non-medical backgrounds. 

There are many other examples of people who ran a company effectively but had trouble transferring those leadership skills to a new company.

Most schools that teach leadership education agree on a set of core elements that make a good leader. Those elements include effective communication, the ability to motivate oneself and others, critical thinking skills, working with teams, problem solving and delegating.

That may be a list you are familiar with. It makes sense...on the surface.

Good leaders do have those skills and the schools that teach leadership make sure that their graduates have those skills.

They teach them how to take in large amounts of information and distill them into their useful components in order to solve critical problems.

They teach them how to build teams to solve those problems and to communicate their visions.

They also teach them how to create trust in a group and use that trust to enable their teams to accomplish more.

Those skills however, cannot alone make an effective leader. Leaders need to have a lot of technical expertise in order to execute those skills in practice.

For example, thinking critically in order to break down a problem into useful and actionable components requires a certain degree of technical expertise in the subject matter.

The key information a physician needs to know in order to diagnose a patient are quite different from the critical information that one needs to know in a political debate. And both of those are quite different from the knowledge one needs in order to negotiate a business deal.

Expertise matters.

Effective communication also differs from one industry to another. In the medical field, physicians communicate with patients very differently from how politicians communicate to their constituents or how CEOs respond to labor disputes.

Again, expertise matters.

When we look at all the core skills that leaders must have, it becomes evident that industry-specific expertise is required in all of them. And industry-level expertise may not be enough. Niche-specific expertise may be required.

If we look at business, it is more than an industry: there are several niches within business. From retail to consulting to construction, all those niches require very specific knowledge.

Leaders know this.

So they surround themselves with competent people who have expert technical knowledge in those specific areas so that they can help them make the best decisions. However, a common problem arises with that strategy.

Without actual or proficient expertise, how do these leaders know that they have actually surrounded themselves with the best people in the field? If a leader cannot assess the information they are getting from their expert advisers for themselves, then they cannot really lead effectively.

That way of thinking about leadership presents two vital inferences. The first is that when people learn about leadership, they need to be explicitly told or taught that niche-specific expertise matters.

Just because one is great at running a startup does not mean that they are going to be successful at running a hospital. Those two organizations have different missions and cultures.

The second is that when people are trained on leadership roles, they need to be given some practice on how to solve niche-specific problems so that can prepare to utilize that information in the industry they are leading in.

For example, instead of leadership schools teaching students how to resolve common conflicts between team members, they should create scenarios from real cases so that students have a better understanding of how to deal with the uncertainties that arise within specific industries.

The topic is particularly pertinent today given that people are more frequently moving from one industry to another. That mobility means that a lot of younger employees may not have time to gain sufficient expertise in the industry or niche in which they are currently working in.

That mobility will also make it hard for them to be effective in managerial positions.

What companies can do is identify prospective future leaders, and nurture and encourage them to stay in the company in order to develop the niche-specific skills they need to effectively lead someday.

Companies can also reiterate these four simple habits to create effective managers. (Or perhaps go with Google’s if it works for them.)

1. Manage Your Team Like You Would Like to Be Managed

“Do ut des,” Latin for “I give so you will give in return,” applies in the workplace and in life as a whole.

Prospective and new managers should think about what they like or dislike about the leadership or management styles of their current and former managers. They then need to think about how they can use some of those positive techniques in managing their own teams; and take note of ways in which not to repeat the same mistakes their former managers did.

So if their former or current boss is a yeller, and they didn’t like being on the receiving end of their rants, they should try not to do the same to their team.

They can instead talk to members of their team in a calm manner, and walk through what they did wrong, and how they can do it better in the future.

2. Don’t Be Too Hierarchical

Being too hierarchical could box employees in and prevent great ideas from flowing through (since ideas can come from everywhere and at different levels – the best ideas can actually come from people with the least experience as they are not set in their ways and are hungry for growth.).

So effective managers should empower all their employees to put forward ideas.

If they encourage all employees to go beyond their job description, the team could get great ideas and results.

That strategy will also give employees higher job satisfaction and a greater sense of purpose, community and team.

3. Delegate

A lot of successful CEOs have mastered the art of delegation in order to create efficient and smart teams.

However, a lot of managers find it easier to do things themselves rather than teach team members how to do it.

In that scenario, while managers may be saving some time, letting a team member try it again would be more beneficial for the both employee and manager in the long term.

It will help free up a manager’s time and also empower employees to be responsible for projects and show their value.

4. Do Not Treat Every Employee the Same Way

A quite common error that a lot of managers make is treating all their employees the same. All employees are not created equal.

They each have their own personalities and different styles of working. For example, one may like getting praised so they can stay motivated to achieve more, while another could be an independent self-starter that likes constructive feedback.

Thus, they need to be treated differently so managers can get the results they want or expect from them. Communication techniques should be adapted to different employees.

Wrapping Up

While Google’s findings and eight habits of highly effective managers may not apply to your organization, it is important for you to device effective leaderships commandments that are specifically tailored to your company. And find the proof in the pudding.

If we look at most companies, we see that they have broad management models in place that advice managers on effective management techniques. They do not rank the management traits by importance or even provide any proof that they work. So managers tend to either dismiss them or apply the advice poorly.

So try to conduct a similar study to Google’s, on a smaller scale of course, within your team. The goal is to create a specifically tailored management technique that has the biggest impact on your teams and company.

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