Project Oxygen … Google set out to explore whether managers are really necessary … They concluded that they were critical to driving structure, clarity and performance

October 1, 2017

Are managers really necessary? In 2002, Google set out to find out, and experimented by removing bosses from its hierarchy. The answer was a resounding yes. Managers were critical not only for structure and clarity, but also for team performance.  After Google discovered that its teams needed great managers, it wanted to know the characteristics that made some bosses more effective than others.

In 2008, Project Oxygen (an initiative to uncover the traits of Google’s best managers)gathered 10,000 manager observations including performance reviews, surveys, and nominations for top-manager awards and recognition. After analyzing the data, Google stumbled upon a realization that surprised many–even its former senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock.

In a New York Times article that revealed the findings, Bock acknowledged that the company had historically hired managers or promoted people who exhibited a higher level of technical expertise than others. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing,” Bock says. “It’s important but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

Here is an extract from Google ReWork describing the project:

Google set out to determine what makes a manager great at Google.  But first, a research team tried to prove the opposite: that managers actually don’t matter, that the quality of a manager didn’timpact a team’s performance. This hypothesis was based on an early belief held by some of Google’s leaders and engineers that managers are, at best, a necessary evil, and at worst, a layer of bureaucracy.

The team defined manager quality based on two quantitative measures: manager performance ratings and manager feedback from Google’s annual employee survey. This data quickly revealed that managers did matter: teams with great managers were happier and more productive.

But knowing that managers mattered didn’t explain what made managers great. So the team asked employees about their managers. By going through the comments from the annual employee survey and performance evaluations, the team found ten common behaviors across high-scoring managers. The researchers also conducted double blind interviews with a group of the best and worst managers to find illustrative examples of what these two groups were doing differently.

Google uncovered what makes a great manager at Google, but that doesn’t mean what works for Google managers will work for any organization.

To determine what makes managers great in your organization, consider these questions:

  • If managers matter, whom do you need to convince and how? Google used internal data to convince engineers and leaders that managers matter. How will you convince your organization?
  • What makes a great manager at your organization? Google found ten behaviors of successful managers – you might find you have two, three, or twelve. Internal data, like employee survey results and interviews, can help uncover the elements of good management at your organization. You can also explore external research (below) to get started.
  • Manager Research Shortlist: