Talent Management

Dec 02, 2021 9 min read

How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management

The content has been curated from the HBR Article “Googles Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?”.

ABSTRACT — Since the early days of Google, people throughout the company have questioned the value of managers. That skepticism stems from a highly technocratic culture. A software engineer, puts it, “We are a company built by engineers for engineers.” And most engineers, not just those at Google, want to spend their time designing and debugging, not communicating with bosses, or supervising other workers’ progress. In their hearts they’ve long believed that management is more destructive than beneficial, a distraction from “real work” and tangible, goal-directed tasks. This case study elaborates how HR at Google convinced its engineers, about the importance of Managers and compiled a list of best traits for Good Managers.


Conundrum at Google!!

  • Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wondered whether Google needed any managers at all.

  • In 2002 they experimented with a completely flat organization, eliminating engineering managers to break down barriers to rapid idea development and to replicate the college environment they’d enjoyed in graduate school.

  • They relented when too many people went directly to Page with questions about expense reports, interpersonal conflicts, and other nitty-gritty issues.

  • And as the company grew, the founders soon realized that managers contributed in many other, important ways—for instance, by communicating strategy, helping employees prioritize projects, facilitating collaboration, supporting career development, and ensuring that processes and systems aligned with company goals.

Challenge faced by Google

  • If your highly skilled, handpicked hires don’t value management, how can you run the place effectively?

  • How do you turn doubters into believers, persuading them to spend time managing others?


  • By applying the same analytical rigour and tools that were used to hire them.
  • By using data about manager’s merit.

New Addition to People Ops

  • Page and Brin brought in Laszlo Bock to head up the human resources function—appropriately called people operations, or People ops.

  • People ops. managed performance reviews, which included annual 360-degree assessments, conduct and interpret the employee survey.

  • Bock hired Prasad Setty from Capital One to lead a people analytics group.

  • Setty was challenged to approach HR with the same empirical discipline Google applied to its business operations.

  • Setty wanted his team to be hypothesis-driven and help solve company problems and questions with data.

Do Managers Matter??

  • Google launched Project Oxygen, a multiyear research initiative.

  • To begin, Patel and his team reviewed exit interview data to see if employees cited management issues as a reason for leaving Google – No relation was observed ie Managers at Google were not directly causing attrition.

  • Ratings and semi-annual reviews were next scanned: comparing managers on both satisfaction and performance. For both dimensions, he looked at the highest and lowest scorers (the top and bottom quartiles).

  • Data was inconclusive - Even the low-scoring managers were doing well.

  • A small silver lining was observed - the high-scoring managers saw less turnover on their teams than the others did—and retention was related more strongly to manager quality than to seniority, performance, tenure, or promotions.

  • The data also showed a tight connection between managers’ quality and workers’ happiness: Employees with high-scoring bosses consistently reported greater satisfaction in multiple areas, including innovation, work-life balance, and career development.

  • The Team further interviewed all high and low scoring mangers and asked questions like,

  • How often do you have career development discussions with your direct reports?

  • What do you do to develop a vision for your team?

  • The team also studied thousands of qualitative comments from surveys, performance reviews, and submissions for the company’s Great Manager Award.

What Best Mangers do?

After much review, Oxygen identified eight behaviours 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

Upward Feedback Survey for Managers

  • The list of behaviours served three important functions at Google:

    • vocabulary for discussing management to employees

    • offering Managers straightforward guidelines for improving Management Skills, and

  • encapsulating the full range of management responsibilities.

  • Because the eight behaviours are rooted in action, it’s difficult for managers to fake them.

  • The group customized the survey instrument, creating an upward feedback survey (UFS) for employees and engineers.

  • Surveys were confidential in nature and managers received reports/findings with numerical scores and individual comments.

  • People were encouraged to be trained in areas where they were scoring low.


Project Oxygen accomplished what it was set out to do: It not only convinced its sceptical audience of Googlers that managers mattered but also identified, described, and institutionalized their most
essential behaviours. That, in a nutshell, is the principle at the heart of Google’s approach: deploying disciplined data collection and rigorous analysis—the tools of science— to uncover deeper insights into the art and craft of management.


David A. Garvin- HBS Case Study “Googles Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?”(case number 9-313- 110, published April 2013).



Share this post

Comments (0)

No Comments yet..

Leave your thought here