Project Oxygen

Google faced a challenge. Ever since the company started, it’s highly trained and self-motivated engineers questioned whether they needed managers. In the high-technology culture, employees actually believed that managers did more harm than good. But Google grew rapidly and by 2013 had 37,000 employees with just 5,000 managers, 1,000 directors, and 100 vice presidents. The organizational structure was flat rather than hierarchical. How could Google’s managers convince its skeptical employees that they needed managers to operate effectively and remain competitive?

Google launched Project Oxygen to prove that managers don’t make a difference (this was their hypothesis). “Luckily, we failed,” said project co-lead Neal Patel. To accomplish the goal, they hired several PhD researchers to form a people analytics team. As with everything Google does, they applied hypothesis-driven research methods to analyze the “soft skills” of managers. Project Oxygen was a multiyear research study designed to uncover the key management behaviors that predict employee satisfaction and organizational effectiveness. One part of the project was an employee survey about their managers’ behaviors. The research team also interviewed employees who were quitting about the behaviors of their managers and why they were leaving Google. The team discovered that there was less turnover on teams with the best managers. They also documented a statistical relationship between high-scoring managers’ behaviors and employee satisfaction. So they concluded that managers did matter and then conducted another study to learn specifically what Google’s best managers did.

Here’s what they found. Project Oxygen identified eight behaviors shared by high-scoring managers:

• Is a good coach

• Empowers the team and does not micromanage

• Expresses interest in, and concern for, team members’ success and personal well-being

• Is productive and results-oriented

• Is a good communicator — listens and shares information

• Helps with career development

• Has a clear vision and strategy for the team

• Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team.

Because this project was evidence-based, the sceptical engineers were convinced that the best managers did make a difference. In describing Project Oxygen, David A. Garvin from the Harvard Business School notes: “Data-driven cultures, Google-discovered, respond well to data-driven change.” Google now offers training and feedback to low-scoring managers. However, they learned that the best approach is to have panels of highly rated managers tell their stories about how they coach and empower their teams. Rather than being told what to do by upper management, they get advice from their colleagues.

Why did they use an evidence-based approach? Describe the type(s) of evidence Google used in their research.

Are you convinced that managers matter? Why or why not? What additional evidence would you like to see?

Create a brief description of the design for the next steps in Project Oxygen to further develop Google’s managers.

Leaders: Are They Born or Made?

With the research on the twins reared apart and evidence from the Big Five personality theory relating personality traits to leader emergence in groups, one question that arises is whether leaders are born to greatness or if leadership can be acquired by anyone.

There are arguments on both sides of this issue among scholars of OB. For example, research suggests genetic factors contribute as much as 40% to the explanation of transformational leadership. This suggests that much of charismatic, visionary leadership is an inborn trait. On the other hand, many people believe that transformational leadership can be learned, and experimental research has shown that leaders can be trained to exhibit charismatic behaviors. Also, followers responded positively to leaders that have been trained, and their performance increased. An integrative perspective suggests that leaders have certain inborn traits that predispose them to self-select into leadership positions. For example, an employee who exhibits extraversion might be more likely to pursue a high-level position in an organization. Once hired into a leadership role, these people may respond to leadership training more than those who are not as interested in becoming leaders. The best thinking on this at present is that leadership is most likely a combination of inborn traits and learned behavior. The implications for organizations are to carefully select those hired into leadership and then provide the training needed to enhance leader effectiveness. Those with innate leadership skills have an advantage, but an individual may be able to enhance his or her leadership capabilities by learning about the behaviors that comprise effective leadership and then practicing the behavioral skills needed.

In your opinion, is leadership born (hereditary) or learned (through training, for example)? Support your position.

If leadership is both born and made, as some researchers believe, what do you think is the best way to identify leadership potential?

What type of leadership training would you recommend to complement the selection process?