Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google

Is management important to a organisations success? How much hierarchical power is helpful? Where is the tipping point where too much power becomes detrimental to an organisations success? Let’s take a look what Google Inc. has found out.

(This post is the 2nd part of a 3 part series on  What Google Inc. has to teach about Management )

A manager wields power over his subordinates. A Manager gives orders, subordinates execute. The manager is vested with powers: Power to hire, to assign jobs, to grant salary increases, to terminate etc. That is the basic deal in hierarchical organisations. Cleary defined positions of power on the managers side and a position of dependance on the subordinate side.

HR: We are here to help, aren’t we?

It is the individual ability of the manager that determines the success of his management efforts for the good of company and the individuals on her team.

HR seeks to improve the individual performance of a manager. Millions are spend on programs to develop managers.  Human resource departments are trying to support managers by arranging trainings and setting and controlling standards to hiring, promotion, feedback and remuneration. In effect, HR keeps the individual power of a manager in check. Thereby it is limiting the negative impact of bad managers.

However, HR is limiting the positive impact of good managers, too. By building up overly bureaucratic process, like – for example – some yearly performance management procedures.

Source: Pierre Nanterre, CEO ccenture Washington Post, 2015

Ironically Accenture earned millions by introducing yearly performance evaluation systems – which they now like to replace by new consulting engagements.

To avoid such over-administrative processes is one reason why Google is calling its Human Resource department “People Operations“, similar to  “Logistics Operations”, “IT Operations”etc. To replace “Resources” with “People” appears to be a good, almost humanistic, decision.

Shifting the balance of Power between Managers and Workers

Google, a company of engineers, has always distrusted traditional management practices. In 2002 it abolished middle managers altogether, only to reinstate the role of managers half a year later, as all remaining high level managers where overwhelmed with the volume of requests from their people.

But Google found ways of restricting the arbitrary, individual and thereby random impact of managers personality. Being a manager at google means giving up a lot of powers compared to managers in other companies. Managers are expected to serve the team, to clear roadblocks and inspire. A lot of their traditional powers are transferred to committees.

google management.jpg

How do Google end up with this odd distribution of power between employees, managers and committees?

Project Oxygen: What is good Management?

The reliance of google on committees making important people decisions stems from Googles academic origins. Being hired by google is more an admission to an elite circle than anything else- just 2,5% of applicants are accepted.  From thereon people are trusted to act and grow without much intrusion by managers. Not unlike professors newly hired to an university campus, employees enjoy much creative freedom.

But Google needs Managers, still. Google was just not sure exactly for what. Getting rid of managers in 2002 did not work, but what is the right way to manage, what are good management behaviors? Do those behaviors have significant impact to bother at all with the field of management?

In 2009 google started project Oxygen to prove that Management does not matter. Backed up with external academic researchers, they found out that:

  1. There are 8 groups of behaviors which constitute good management
  2. A Manager practicing these behaviors improves teams performance
  3. A good Manager – those practicing these 8 behaviours- is the single most significant predictors of the teams performance. More than financial resources, manpower, business area, group composition or anything else.


Source: re:work – a web site set-up by google to promote their approach to management

Project Aristotle: What is a good team?

Since 2009, google was more sure than ever what good management is. But still, teams performance varied widely.  Good management behaviors might be the best predictor for team performance, but it only is one of many inputs. So how can a teams performance be predicted? What makes a successful team?

In 2012 Google launched Project Aristotle to find it out. The result is as simple as it is refreshing.

Screenshot 2016-08-15 11.26.48.png

Source: re:work – a web site set-up by google to promote their approach to management

  • Good teams provide a psychological safe place to work. Competition – for example-  inside the team is ok, but with a sportive attitude, not with the objective to put someone down. In other words management by fear, terror and playing off different team members will not produce great results.
  • Dependability, Structure and Clarity lead team members to be able to rely on each other and coordinate their actions in an efficient way.
  • Meaning and impact provides dedication to work by providing a deeper meaning to work than just getting the work done. It gives people a compass to use in not well defined situations in order to decide and act in the best interests of the team.

It is interesting to note what is not listed: Teams might be…

  • shouting in meetings at each other or be nice and considerate
  • they may waste large chunks of time on personal chit-chat or they might frown upon any non business talk and get down straight to business
  • they might follow a certain structured meeting format or just make it up as they go

These factors do not matter: They are more a matter of style than of outcomes. What matters are the five factors listed above:  As long as no behavior undermines the psychological safety of a team member (or any of the other four factors), teams are free to work as they please and still come up with excellent outcomes – consistently.

All these findings are as true for a team of engineers as it is for a team of accountants.


Google restricts the power of a manager to release the productive energies of individuals: It grants the individual more autonomy. The power of managers is curtailed to help and protect individuals from arbitrary decisions.

As the authors of “Google Works” and “Work rules!” stress, this approach to management is not limited to Google. This has been done even in low tech, developing world t-shirt factories as well as in low margin grocery retail.

Watch this video from Wegmans, a successful but low margin, mid sized grocery in North West US, who is practicing the same management principles as google… and do not be put off by these guys choice of jacket colors.

Freedom is for free: Anyone can do what google has found out, no costs attached.


This post is the second part of a 3 part series centered on Googles management practices and what other companies can learn from it. 

Next, in part 3 of this series, let’s have a look at who companies like Google or Wegmans organize people operations.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *