Google Project Oxygen revisited: What it takes to be a great manager

In 2008, Google’s Project Oxygen identified the eight qualities of good managers. It established that good managers were the key to team outcomes like turnover, satisfaction, and performance over time. Ten years later, they revisited their research and revised two behaviors and added two more.

We decided to take a closer look at what these changes mean for today's managers and provide insights into how you can identify and develop your managers accordingly.

What key skills and behaviors does a manager need?

Google’s original study revealed eight core skills of good managers, and in today’s updated list of ten, two behaviors were revised (3 and 6) and two more were added (9 and 10). With this in mind there are still only two that are directly related to technical knowledge or deliverables and the others are all about soft skills.

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers team and does not micromanage
  3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator — listens and shares information
  6. Supports career development and discusses performance
  7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  9. Collaborates across Google
  10. Is a strong decision maker

What do the updates to Project Oxygen tell us?

Taking a closer look at the list of ten “Google Manager behaviors”, skills 3 and 6 changed subtly. From “Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” to “Creates an inclusive team environment showing concern for success and wellbeing”. And from “Helps with career development” to “Supports career development and discusses performance”.

This shows that people are not looking for managers to set the blueprint and give them direct “instructions” on how to do their jobs or which career path to follow. It’s less hand holding and more opening the way for others to follow. There has been a change in expectations: expressing an interest is no longer enough, managers need to have the leadership skills to create the environment in which people can thrive.

Similarly, people want the possibility to discuss performance and co-create their career paths, putting themselves in the driver’s seat rather than waiting for options to be handed to them. As HR expert Josh Bersin says, “employees are demanding to be in the driver seat and you better give them the steering wheel”.

The addition of “Collaborates across Google” and “Is a strong decision maker” as skills 9 and 10, show that people need better clarity and alignment between their work and the overall direction of the company. If they don’t understand how they are contributing to the organization’s overarching mission, they become disengaged.

It also reveals that while people want to be empowered, they expect good leadership skills from their managers. Empowerment shouldn’t be confused with a “hands-off” approach! People want to know in which direction they’re going and have confidence in their manager’s decisions.

How to identify a good manager

While ensuring your managers are doing a good job is important, it can also seem daunting. How can you use Google’s 10 Manager behaviors as a starting point?

Most of the behaviors are about managing and navigating workplace relationships. In particular, managers need to bring out the best in people as illustrated by points 1, 2, 5 and 6, and have strong leadership skills (natural or learnt) as illustrated by points 2-7 and 10.

Start by identifying if managers in your organization are already displaying these traits. It doesn’t have to be complicated: you can ask the people they work with to give you feedback by conducting leadership reviews. Use your performance management system to ask people a set of questions such as:

If you want to go one step further, why not lead your own research to get a better understanding of what people in your company most value in good managers, and what would they like to see? The additional values of asking people internally are:

As an alternative, if you don't have a performance management system, you can use Google Forms, Typeform, or run an engagement survey using an employee engagement platform. This will help you establish a baseline from which you can determine the best way forward.

How to develop great managers

Here are a few simple ideas on how you can ensure managers are getting proper support and become more effective:

In addition to creating opportunities for training, managers need support in their day to day. They are often struggling to find out which team members are underperforming until it’s too late, because they are juggling a lot of responsibilities. With the right tools in place to support them, managers can keep track of conversations, view progress on goals, and conduct light-weight check-ins. This supports them in their role as a manager, making it seem less overwhelming, supporting their transition into the role, all while helping you gather more insight into teams across the organization.

Continuous improvement

Creating training opportunities to bridge the gap is a great first step, but as Google did, remember to regularly evaluate progress. If you’ve developed a set of competencies managers need to have, measure them against those skills to ensure consistency and know when people need support. This helps everyone stay on track and uphold standards across the organization. In addition, the more regularly you run reviews the more data you will have to make informed decisions about promotions, training, or restructuring of teams. You can even use this information to suggest improved processes and ways of working company-wide.

Conclusion

Managers are one of the most important pillars of your organization. They are responsible for developing others, and are ambassadors of your company values. In today’s competitive environment where it’s difficult to attract talent company culture is key, and managers play a large part in shaping it.

Ten years ago, Project Oxygen revealed the importance of soft skills for managers. But today, higher expectations are placed on them. People want them to empower and lead, to show support but not hold hands... Essentially being a good manager is about much more than just delegating tasks and managing people’s time. It’s about becoming a good leader, and paving the way for others after you.

If you invest in developing your managers, the knock-on effects are positive: those who know how to coach and develop others will support the creation of a learning environment, where people feel empowered and are in the driver’s seat of their careers.

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