Google’s Project Oxygen: Do managers still matter?

We live in a knowledge space: people ask, question and explore. Gone are the days for just accepting everything we are told. More and more organisations, not only the start-up nation and [cool] tech Silicon Valley companies, are starting to question and even rebel against the conventional corporation model and the rigidity it brings with it. We live in a time where the norm incorporates office slides, gyms, on-site bars, games rooms, sleep pods, meditation classes, free snack stations and more. Sounds dreamy? What about the traditional manager-employee relationship in the hierarchical battle? This is, too, being questioned, adjusted and adapted according to the changing times. However, the big question remains, do managers still matter or are they the symbol and epitome of yesteryear’s organisational paradigm?

In 2002, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin debated whether Google actually needed any managers. They experimented with a completely flat organisational structure with no managers in an effort to break down hierarchical barriers to innovation and idea development. This never lasted long, only a couple of months. It was evident that managers are not only important for structure and clarity, but also for team performance and productivity. Fast forward to 2008/9, Google embarked on Project Oxygen: something business-defining and vastly different to developing algorithms, search engines and apps.

What is Project Oxygen?
Google’s People Innovation Lab hired a group of statisticians in a quest to find out if manager quality impacts on performance and what good management looked like. This project became dubbed as¬†Project Oxygen. They gathered 10,000 manager observations through performance appraisals, employee surveys and nomination processes and noticed a very strong pattern and resemblance in the responses. Project Oxygen uncovered that technical skill and expertise scored very low in priority as to what actually makes a good manager, whereas connection, communication and accessibility came out tops.

Ten habits of highly effective Google Managers
1. Be a good coach
Successful managers are those who know how to engage their teams at all levels by listening, asking questioning, communicating positively and offering constructive feedback. Instead of jumping the gun and trying to problem solve as soon as something arises, the best managers use problems as teaching opportunities. They guide and support their team through the process and offer insights and valuable take-outs. The team gains the most valuable experience which would be hard or near on impossible to learn theoretically.

2. Empowers team and does not micromanage
Empowerment breeds performance and productivity. Nobody likes having someone over their shoulder watching their every move. The micro-managing style is more conventional and often seen as something of the past. Managers should delegate tasks to their team and have enough trust that they will get the job done effectively and efficiently. Employees crave freedom and autonomy, it’s an expression of their identity and highlights a freedom of creative exploration.¬†

3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
The workplace is often viewed as somewhat impersonal and results focused, with a lack of a sense of collaboration. Good managers work hard to connect and engage with team members across the board, and encourage employees to do the same in a safe and conducive manner.¬†Energized¬†and effective teams are more likely to feel satisfied and motivated. Employees want to feel safe (psychologically)¬†and being included, no matter their demographics and background, should be a¬†fundamental¬†building block. This has a domino effect as happy employees are healthy employees. Employees should know it’s safe to be open without the fear of prejudice and judgement. Physical, mental, financial wellbeing should be on all managers’ agenda.

4. Is productive and results-oriented
“Lead by example” – a¬†clich√©¬†but so accurately put, as well as an integral part in creating a successful collaboration. A great manager is not afraid of getting his / her hands dirty. They are not above anyone or any task; they set the right example and do whatever is necessary to help out. They are team players and are a part of the greater whole, like everyone else, achieving the same desired result.

5. Is a good communicator ‚ÄĒ listens and shares information
It’s so common for managers to dictate and for communication to be one-directional.¬†Respect, empathy and trust¬†should be core traits for all managers, where they give each and every one of their team members the time and space they need. They need to show they value their employees’ skills, expertise and opinions. They need to ask the right questions and give the right responses. Good communicators are personal and tailor their responses to that of the particular query / employee, rather than¬†sausage-factory¬†style. These managers should always be transparent in all dealings, and never withhold information, support or guidance. This again, reinforces the notion that knowledge is power, and power produces global results.

6. Supports career development and discusses performance
When development and growth is raised, more often than not, the double-edged sword comes into play where managers obviously want their teams to be equipped with the latest knowledge, skills and trends, always achieving and wanting to expand, however they are afraid they may move onto pastures elsewhere where higher-paying jobs are on offer. A great manager should never have this view, rather the opposite. According to the Huffington Post, not investing in employee training is risky. This short-sighted perspective can be as dangerous to a company as they are at the peril of demotivating teams and damaging morale and reputation. If employees have progression opportunities and see a future where they can grow, they are more like to stay put and invest their time and energy into their current tenure

7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
Success begins with a clear vision. A great manager knows where a team is headed, where they currently are as well as the route they will use to reach their desired goal and destination. They have a framework and blueprint in mind and are not afraid to share it with all those who are involved. They know when to be flexible and deviate, as well as when they need to be fixed and rigid. With this in mind, each employee also knows and understands their individual role and where they fit into the execution as an active contributor.

8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team
A good manager possesses both the technical skills and know-hows (been there, done that approach) of each of its employees so they can accurately advise and signpost on any given task. These managers also innately have an emotional intelligence which will compound on the technical side of things. This will allow the best advice to be given, and more importantly, in the most effective and engaging way possible.

9. Collaborates across Google
One of the biggest factors which can make or break the success of an organisations is whether managers and employees are able to perform together as a team. Teams should never be viewed as a silo, or in direct competition to another team, but rather as a piece of the greater whole. A good manager and unified leadership are able to see the bigger picture, shared contributions as well as the importance of cross-function working and interdependencies, where teams need to work together in order to succeed.

10. Is a strong decision maker
A well-thought out decision more often than not, trumps an impulsive¬†decision. This involves communicating all the choices at hand to the necessary team and going through the stages of coming to a decisive and informative conclusion together. A good manager will always explain the¬†whys¬†behind the chosen direction. Indecisive decision makers don’t offer much confidence for a team and this is, therefore, a breeding ground for doubt, uncertainty and potential resentment.

So, do the above 10 quality traits resonate in your business? What makes a good manager in your organisation? Is it about hierarchy or collaboration? Is it about dictating or engagement? These big questions are necessary to ask, especially to encourage¬†employee engagement, cooperation and motivation. A manager’s style has the potential to dictate and guide the direction and level of performance and how employees feel.

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Xexec understands the importance of a collaborative employer-employee relationship.

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