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Google mines data to identify the best managers

What makes a good manager? Google has turned to data analytics technology to find out

Google has turned to data analytics technology to find out what makes a good manager.

The company, which prides itself in making data-driven decisions, has analysed the performance of thousands of employees to identify the essential attributes of a top manager.

Caitlin Hogan, people analyst in Google’s human resources (HR) department, said the company embarked on the project after an abortive attempt to abolish managers altogether in some parts of the company.

“This was an example of us thinking big and taking risks. But, as you can imagine, it didn’t work out so well, so we brought them all back,” she said, speaking at an industry conference.

Project Oxygen

The company launched Project Oxygen to gather empirical evidence to show why it needed managers and what they could contribute to the company.

Each year, the company carries out a survey of managers and employees, dubbed the Googlegeist. 

What makes a good manager?

  • Good at coaching employees
  • Empowers teams without micro-managing
  • Cares about their teams, supports work-life balance
  • Productive and results orientated
  • Good communicator
  • Helps staff with career development
  • Has a clear vision and strategy for their teams
  • Has important technical skills, and can advise their teams on technical issues

Source: Google

Google’s people analytics team number-crunched the data to find out what lay behind high-performing managers.

At first sight, it looked like managers were performing similarly, whether they were assessed on their own performance, or the performance of their teams.

But a more in-depth analysis of the data revealed that higher performing managers had happier and better performing teams with lower staff turnover.

Double blind interviews

The analysis included comments made by employees in the annual survey, text in managers' performance appraisals and a series of “double blind” interviews, in which the interviewers were not informed whether the manager was high performing or low performing.

The research helped to overturn the common perception at Google that technical ability is the most important skill in a successful Google employee.


The ability to be a good coach, empower teams without micro-managing them, and to support them as people were much more important for managers than technical prowess, the research found (see box)

Signs that managers are struggling

  • They have had a tough transition into the manager role, perhaps because they have been hired externally or without training support.
  • They lack a consistent approach to performance management. They may be unaware of Google’s performance management approach.
  • They don’t support career development, or may equate career development with promotion.
  • They expect authority and respect as a result of their position, rather than by earning it.
  • They spend too little time on managing and communicating

Source: Google

Although the results are unlikely to come as a surprise to most managers or human resources (HR) specialists, they carried weight among Google employees because they were scientifically derived from data.

As a result, the company has been able to transform the way it trains and develops managers, said Hogan, speaking at HR Tech Europe's summer preview in London.

This includes introducing great manager awards to raise the profile of managers in the organisation.

The company has also introduced just-in-time training for managers, to help them with management tasks, such as appraisals, when they need to be carried out.

The project has led to a year-on-year improvement in managers’ appraisal scores.

“Project Oxygen allows us to identify managers who are doing a great job and hold them up to the company, and find managers who are not doing so well and give them support, and to find out when people are not cut out to be managers,” said Hogan.

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