In this super-sized episode, Travis and Brandon discuss what makes a great manager, using 10 skills and traits developed by Google's Project Oxygen and updated over the last 10 years. What is the job of a manager?
We discuss the role of a manager with this Google-developed evaluation framework as a guide:
Carol Dweck, fixed vs growth mindset
Travis’s magic question: “How would you like me to help with this?”
Brandon’s Notes-Trello Listening-action framework
Private Confluence space for 1:1 agendas with action items
Conjoined triangles post
Simon Sinek: “Start with why”
HBR study about why people want people who could do their job
1. “Is a Good Coach”
Employees need and appreciate a manager who takes time to coach and challenge them, and not just when they’re behind.
As Muse contributor Avery Augustine put it, “When it comes to clients, the squeaky wheel usually gets the grease.” The same is true, she said, of employees you manage.
But “I realized that every employee needs to be managed—star performer or not,” she wrote. “And simply leaving some employees to do their jobs without any type of feedback or guidance was detrimental to their career development.”
2. “Empowers Team and Does Not Micromanage”
Micromanaging’s a common mistake managers make without even realizing it, one that discourages and frustrates employees.
But Google’s research found that its best managers don’t, instead offering the right balance of freedom and advice, showing they trust their direct reports, and advocating for the team, according to a sample breakdown from an internal presentation included in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article.
3. “Creates an Inclusive Team Environment, Showing Concern for Success and Well-Being”
In the first iteration of the list, this was described as “expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.”
Several years later, the company’s updated this entry to reflect research on psychological safety that allows for risk-taking—which Google identified as an important characteristic of effective teams—and unbiasing, or the process of becoming aware of and combatting unconscious biases.
It’s not enough just to have a diverse team, good leaders and managers strive to create an inclusive environment every day.
4. “Is Productive and Results-Oriented”
Employees don’t want to work for a lazy boss. They'd rather be part of a team that’s productive and successful, and that’s hard to do if the leader doesn’t set the tone.
Former Muse editor Adrian Granzella Larssen explained that becoming a boss means you have to be on model behavior.
“As a manager, you'll be looked to as a role model,” she wrote. “You can’t expect people to give their best at work if they don’t see you doing it, so be sure you’re always on your A game.” That means putting in the effort and getting results.
5. “Is a Good Communicator—Listens and Shares Information”
Communicating effectively is one of the basics of being a good manager (or a good employee for that matter). But it’s also important to remember that great managers prioritize listening.
“Focused, curious listening conveys an emotional and personal investment in those who work for us,” according to Muse contributor Kristi Hedges. “When you listen to people, they feel personally valued. It signals commitment.”
6. “Supports Career Development and Discusses Performance”
Google recently added the “discusses performance” component to this behavior. The company pointed to research from Gallup that found only half of employees know what expectations they should be fulfilling at work.
“To free employees to take initiative and inspire high performance,” Gallup concluded, “managers need to set clear expectations, hold employees accountable for meeting them and respond quickly when employees need support.”
In other words, managers should not only help their team develop skills and advance their careers, but also be clear about expectations and give honest feedback about performance.
7. “Has a Clear Vision/Strategy for the Team”
Stephanie Davis, who won one of Google’s Great Manager Awards, told HBR that feedback reports helped her realize how important it was to communicate team vision in addition to company vision.
“They wanted me to interpret the higher-level vision for them,” she said. “So I started listening to the company’s earnings call with a different ear. I didn’t just come back to my team with what was said; I also shared what it meant for them.”
A clear and shared vision can also help members of your team work well together.
8. “Has Key Technical Skills to Help Advise the Team”
When Google first released its list of behaviors, the findings were somewhat anti-climactic. “My first reaction was, that’s it?” Laszlo Bock, then the Vice President of People Operations, told The New York Times in 2011.
The entries on the list may’ve been obvious, but their relative importance wasn’t, as Bock’s team found out when it ranked the behaviors.
“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,” he said. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison.”
So all hope isn’t lost if you find yourself managing people who know more than you.
9. “Collaborates Across the Organization”
Google recently extended its list by two when its employee survey found that effective cross-organization collaboration and stronger decision-making were important to Googlers.
Whether you’re at a large corporation, an early-stage startup, or a nonprofit, managing your team and leading it to success can depend at least in part on how well you can work with other teams.
Muse contributor Rebecca Andruszka gave some tips for improving communication with other departments for “the collective betterment of the company” (and, as she wrote, to avoid feeling like you work in Congress).
10. “Is a Strong Decision Maker”
Google’s last addition is a reminder that while it’s important for a manager to listen and share information, employees also appreciate one who can make decisions.
Muse Founder and President Alex Cavoulacos urged managers to go one step further and tell their teams not only what decision they’ve made, but also why they’ve made it. The small extra effort helps the team understand context and priorities, improve their own future decision-making, and stay engaged as well as informed.
One of the reasons this research was so effective was that it used internal data to prove what makes managers great at Google (and the company’s re:Work website provides some first steps for others who want to try to replicate its approach).
But that doesn’t mean the list isn’t helpful for people who don’t work there. After all, Google did go from being a made-up word to a household name in just a few years. People and companies now look to it as an example, not only in innovation, but also in its approach to management.