A Look at Google’s Project Oxygen — Do Good Managers Matter for Employee Performance?

Short answer: yes.

Google is undeniably one of the most successful tech companies in the world. Twenty years ago, numerous startups were wiped out in the dot-com crash, which concluded in 2002. As a result, Silicon Valley lost 200,000 jobs (1), and yet, Google was able to survive and flourish. In early 2000, the company was highly profitable. According to Garvin, Wagonfield, and Liz (2013), the company was driven by ever-expanding teams of engineers due to the nature of its products. However, Google struggled to define the role of engineering managers, and executives at Google even questioned whether the managers were needed at all. Engineering managers had a tendency to provide little direction because it was believed to interfere with engineers in getting work done. On the other hand, if managers gave more direction, they ran the risk of being perceived as micromanagers. (2)

Surprisingly, a manager-to-engineer ratio of 1:30 was not uncommon at Google. Earlier in its history, a few hundred engineers were reporting to only four managers.(3) In my professional experience, a 1:8 manager-to-employee ratio is optimal since it allows managers to focus on what each individual employee needs in the workplace. According to Goffee and Jones (2013), people like to work at a company where:

…individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules. (4)

Every organization is, to some extent, executive-driven because opinions can weigh more heavily coming from certain individuals. As Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) explained, opinions tend to be considered more seriously when they come from senior leadership. On the other hand, facts flatten hierarchies. When decisions are based on facts, anyone’s facts are more likely to be equally considered.(5) As Google’s leaders, Page and Brin, asked the question about the necessity of having managers, the idea was met with skepticism and rightly so. Consequently, a team was formed to answer Page and Brin’s question on whether or not managers really mattered to Google’s success.

Initiated by Google’s People and Innovation Lab, or PiLab, Project Oxygen involved processing data from various internal reviews and surveys. Although it was not clear at the outset, the data clearly showed that Google’s managers have a significant impact on job satisfaction, retention, and performance. PiLab took the additional step to ask, “What do our best managers do?” This important question led to PiLab’s identification of eight attributes or behaviors that were common among the high-scoring managers at Google. Just as Kurkoski noted her concern about the list seeming obvious, the list does seem rather generic, since managers have heard these words and phrases many times before.(6)However, it is often true that good ideas are rarely ever shocking or revolutionary.(7)

PiLab used existing data sources that presumably allowed the team to focus on synthesizing the information available instead of getting bogged down with data gathering. Using existing data for secondary analysis in pursuit of research that is separate from the original work may not always yield the best outcome. Qualitative data, like feedback or opinion, can be highly contextual. Responses can differ based on the circumstances and the manner in which the questions are asked. The approach that PiLab took to gather data was arbitrary at best and haphazard at worst. It is my opinion that the research project could have been approached in a way that data is gathered for its intended use.

Next, the team worked on an action plan that made its findings relevant to people in different parts of the organization. Feedback reports, training and classes, information-sharing through panels with respected peers are all tactics employed by the team to drive change in the company.(8) The team’s efforts were commendable.

The eight attributes of Project Oxygen provide great value to the organization since the attributes are attainable by any manager with the right kind of training and preparation. In my opinion, however, a list of attributes such as that employed by Project Oxygen needs to be treated as a starting point, and not merely a static checklist of aspirational qualities for effective managers. Ongoing studies should be conducted in order to reveal greater insights. The attributes used by Project Oxygen are generalizable because they can each be applied to broader groups of people and situations. However, since the list was formed from qualitative data, they should be applied with a high degree of awareness of the circumstances to which they are used. The impact of the project was seen through improvements in managers’ median scores. Even if there may be other factors involved in the rise of the median scores, it can conservatively be assumed that the list pointed the team in the right direction.

In conclusion, today’s companies should invest in hiring and developing effective managers that demonstrate each of the eight attributes, and companies should modify these attributes as necessary based on their own findings. Great managers result in more engaged employees, which in turn, positively impacts profitability.(9) Firms generally under-invest in employee satisfaction, but it has been found that the benefits of employee satisfaction outweigh its costs.(10)

References

1 McCullough, B. (2020, July 24). A revealing look at the dot-com bubble of 2000 — and how it shapes our lives today. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://ideas.ted.com/an-eye-opening-look-at-the-dot-com-bubble-of-2000-and-how-it-shapes-our-lives-today/

2 Garvin, D., Wagonfeld, A. and Kind, L. (2013, October 15). Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter? Harvard Business School.

3 Garvin, D., Wagonfeld, A. and Kind, L. (2013, October 15). Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter? Harvard Business School.

4 Goffee, R., Jones, G. (2013). Creating the Best Workplace on Earth. Harvard Business Review.

5 Pfeffer, J., Sutton, R., (2006). Management Half-Truth and Nonsense: How to Practice Evidence-Based Management. California Review Management.

6 Garvin, D., Wagonfeld, A. and Kind, L. (2013, October 15). Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter? Harvard Business School.

7 Pfeffer, J., Sutton, R., (2006). Management Half-Truth and Nonsense: How to Practice Evidence-Based Management. California Review Management.

8 Garvin, D., Wagonfeld, A. and Kind, L. (2013, October 15). Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter? Harvard Business School.

9 Kumar, V., Pansari, A. (2015). Measuring the Benefits of Employee Engagement. MIT Sloan Management Review.

10 Edmans, A. (2016). 28 Years of Stock Market Data Shows a Link Between Employee Satisfaction and Long-Term Value. Harvard Business Review.

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VP, Product at Sezzle | Financially empowering the next generation

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