The Art of Being a Good Boss, According to Google

OK boss, you’ve read all the business management classics, right? Chester Barnard's The Functions of the Executive. Douglas McGregor's The Human Side of Enterprise. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Alfred Sloan Jr.’s My Year with General Motors. The list goes on.

Well, now there’s Google’s Project Oxygen, whose mission is simple: Build better bosses.


According to The New York Times, Google’s "people operations" group, led by Laszlo Bock, "found that technical expertise -- the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep -- ranked dead last" among the list of Google’s eight main habits of effective managers, which include "have a clear vision and strategy for the team," "help your employees with career development" and "don’t be a sissy: be productive and results-oriented."

In essence, employees valued most those managers with people skills, not technical ones. Rather than being told what to do, employees want to be helped through figuring out problems for themselves. And unsurprisingly, those employees place themselves, not their bosses, at the center of their own realities.

"In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” said Bock. "It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible."


Google’s finding correlates with a recent joint study by the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC and Peking University that examined how bosses were viewed differently by white Americans and Chinese in China. The study found that white Americans respond quicker to pictures of the their own face, while their Chinese counterparts responded quicker to pictures of their boss's face, suggesting a higher sense of individualism and self-importance in America than in China.

"The very concept of a 'boss' may be different in different cultures," said Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor at BCI. "These findings are particularly salient as globalization increases and, along with it, the prevalence of multicultural collaboration, particularly between East Asian and Western partners."

Any effective corporate social responsibility policy views workers as virtual owners of the corporation, and not only recognizes the sine qua non role they play in the success of the organization, but also the organization’s important role in the career development of its workers.

In her 2004 paper "Employees as Corporate Stakeholder: Theory and Reality in a Transatlantic Context," Irene Lynch-Fannon, a law professor at University College Cork, argues that "employees are the most significant non-shareholding corporate stakeholding group,” and that the concept of corporate ownership "represents an already fragmented or splintered bundle of rights" which "allows for employees to claim ownership as well as shareholders."

Just as you wouldn't tell your shareholders what to do, you shouldn't dictate orders to your employees.


Google quickly achieved results since implementing their list of eight good habits in their management training. "We were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of our worst-performing managers,” said Bock.

And part of being a people-oriented boss is about smiling and getting people to smile, a deceptively simple gesture that was the focus of a recent study at Michigan State University. According to that study, workers who faked smiles during the workday worsened their moods and decreased productivity, while workers who genuinely smiled improved their mood and withdrew less from their tasks.

"Employers may think that simply getting their employees to smile is good for the organization, but that's not necessarily the case," said Brent Scott, assistant professor of management at MSU. "Smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal, and that's bad for the organization."

But if managers really need all these studies to figure out what essentially is common sense, then perhaps companies are hiring the wrong managers to begin with. Listen to people. Give them a reason to smile. It's really not that hard. It's just being a nice person.

For effective managers, every problem and every frown should be seen as opportunities. After all, as Sun Tzu wrote in his classic 6th-century-BC military-treatise-turned-business-strategy-classic Art of War, "Opportunities multiply as they are seized." And in many cases, you don't need a battlefield or a marketplace to find those opportunities. Just hang out by the water cooler. And turn that frown upside down.

image: PaRaP