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Revisiting Project Oxygen: A look at what makes a good manager

July 19, 2022 - 14 min read

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It started with resistance from engineers and millennials

Project Oxygen asked the question

How the findings on good managers apply to your company

We've long heard about the role of tech in "disrupting" the status quo. 

Reflecting on the past decade alone, we've lived through plenty of workplace disruption. As a workforce, we've evolved from wanting ping pong tables and nap pods to a workforce craving connection, autonomy, and flexibility. We've pivoted from chasing efficiency and sticking to business to showing up as our whole selves at work and putting belonging and inclusion at the forefront of the employee experience

Through COVID-19 and the Great Resignation, we learned that employees want to find purpose in their work. They also want flexibility, health, and meaning. Employees want to choose when and where they work while still maintaining meaningful connections with others. We've learned that, for many, working remotely actually unlocked creativity, opened up new opportunities, and helped galvanize a workforce to reach more of its potential. 

Over a decade ago Google, a BetterUp customer, examined one question with the aim to disrupt the status quo of people management. The question? What does it take to be a good manager? 

The answer? It starts with coaching. 

Now, more than a decade after Google launched Project Oxygen, many lessons still stand the test of time. Here are some reflections on Project Oxygen — and why coaching holds strong as a top attribute for any successful leader. 

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It started with resistance from engineers and millennials

The group that had the biggest problem with management was the company’s engineers. Engineers may have lower tolerance for bad management. It's a field that fosters creative individuals who have their own style and way of doing things.

When someone tries to micromanage this type of worker it results in conflicts and a loss of interest. Laszlo Bock, author of Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live, explained:

"Engineers generally think managers are at best a necessary evil, but mainly they get in the way, create bureaucracy, and screw things up."

Laszlo Bock, Former Senior Vice President of People Operations, Google 

However, it’s not just engineer-driven companies that looking for some change from the status quo when it comes to management. A survey by Virtuali found that 83% of millennials want fewer layers of management. This means they want managers who are easily approachable and willing to take their opinions into account. This became evident in millennial-led or millennial-heavy organizations that favored open workspaces where CEOs, managers, and employees worked alongside each other.  

Project Oxygen asked the question

In an environment where the conventional was often challenged, Google’s People Innovation Lab started Project Oxygen with a goal of proving that manager quality does not have an impact on performance. They hired a group of statisticians to evaluate the differences between the highest and lowest rated managers. Data was collected using past performance appraisals, employee engagement surveys, interviews, and other sources of employee feedback.

However, instead of proving that manager quality did not matter, the statisticians found that good management actually does make a difference. To better define what makes a good manager they analyzed the data and arrived at the following list of eight qualities of good managers.

project-oxygen-woman-at-conference-table

8 findings about good managers from Google’s Project Oxygen

  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

While this list seems obvious there were three reasons why it had such a big impact on management at Google. First, it was based on people analytics. In a culture that valued data and scientific evidence, using people analytics gave the project greater credibility.

The fact that it was based on employee feedback encouraged wider employee buy-in and trust. Similarly, the hard data helped to convince managers why they needed to improve their management style.

Second, the interesting thing is that technical skills came in last. While it’s important that managers have the needed technical level to guide employees, soft skills such as coaching and communication are absolutely essential. This proves what many employees instinctively knew from their own experience:  being a great developer doesn’t necessarily make you a great manager.

Third, it provided a checklist of management qualities. As Bock explained, whether or not your manager is well versed in management 101 and every training course your company offers, having a checklist makes a big difference as it actually reminds managers to remember and implement these skills on a daily basis.

As a result, Google changed its feedback surveys to mirror these qualities. Instead of simply measuring how much output a manager achieves, the surveys now focus on how much time they spend coaching their team, whether or not they communicate a clear vision, etc. They also developed new management training programs centered around these skills.

How the findings on good managers apply to your company

Great employees don’t always make great managers

Though it may be common sense that a company of engineers would value technical knowledge and ability in a manager, it is telling that this skill came in last place on Google’s list.

Great employees don’t always make the best managers. Some engineers may prefer to focus on their work. You have to have patience, great communication skills, and the ability to see the big picture and create long-term goals.

The problem is that the traditional company is based on linking promotions with higher levels of managerial responsibilities. It’s time for your company to rethink this strategy.

Instead of putting people with great technical skills in management positions, put people with great leadership skills in management positions. Some companies have instituted dual tracks so that not everyone has to take the management path.

project-oxygen-female-leader-leading-team-meeting

Become a great coach

Becoming a great coach, especially in the tech world, is essential. What engineers, developers, and everyone under the sun really want is a manager who knows how to distinguish the line between coaching and micromanaging.

To learn where this line lies, think about your employee. Are they an engineer with more than five years of experience? Then what they probably need most is a manager who will help them to set goals and then stand back and allow them to execute them in their own way (as long as this gets results).

As a manager, one of your most important responsibilities is to guide your employees towards goals that fall in line with your company’s objectives and long-term goals.

That being said, also allow some space for creativity. Google gained a lot of traction with media and in-demand talent for its policy of letting employees devote 20% of their time to passion projects. 20% time resulted in popular products such as Gmail and AdSense. Other companies adopted similar policies. While this may not an official policy for your company, as a manager, encouraging employees to dedicate some time to working on innovative new ideas with colleagues can bring you great products and loyalty from motivated employees.

New engineers on the other hand may need more coaching. Here the line may become thinner but the best way to provide guidance while not encroaching on your employee's freedom is through feedback.

Feedback culture

Being able to give feedback the right way is the strongest tool in your management utility belt (think more Batman than Home Depot). Two-thirds of millennials believe it’s their manager's responsibility to provide them with development opportunities.

Despite this, many managers are often hesitant to give constructive feedback to their employees, fearing their reaction. However, this is a major part of the development process, so if your employees don’t know what they need to do to improve, their professional development could become stagnant.

Many leading HR and People Teams have recognized this risk, and are finding new ways to support Managers to have more continuous conversations with their team to help fuel performance as well as professional development.

Delivering well-balanced actionable feedback is the answer. When you have to deliver constructive feedback, some managers balance it out by first explaining to their employees what they’re doing well.

Always make sure your feedback places emphasis on actions and completely avoids personality traits. For example, “I noticed you talked over Mark in the meeting yesterday” rather than “You’re overbearing in meetings.” Always provide advice on how they can fix the situation and discuss the best solution. 

In return, it’s also important to millennials that managers are open to their feedback. This generation does not like to see hierarchal barriers that prevent their ideas from being heard. This means that managers also have to be good at not only receiving feedback but acting upon it as well.

Finally don’t forget that positive feedback is also needed. When your employee reaches an achievement a great coach always remembers to recognize them for their efforts.

Get to know your employees

This is important both at a professional and personal level. Getting to know your employees’ strengths will help you give better feedback and show them you have a genuine interest in their careers.

Managers who know their employees’ strengths are 71% more likely to have people who are engaged and energized. Showing them you’re taking an interest in their career and professional goals will help you gain a loyal workforce.

Give your managers the tools they need to lead the modern workforce

Managing teams today is a tough job, and they rarely get the support they need to succeed. Just like your employees, offering regular trainings on key skills will keep managers engaged and motivated to improve their management strategies. Here are a few topics that every management training program should include:

Beyond this, providing your managers with helpful tools to provide more actionable and effective feedback will go a long way to helping them keep their teams engaged and motivated.

And above all, how are you empowering a culture of coaching? With BetterUp, provide your managers with personalized support to help navigate change, uncertainty, and tough conversations. With one-on-one coaching, you can grow your employees' mental fitness, increase productivity, and unlock their full potential. 

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Published July 19, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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