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The Magic Bullet Even Google Couldn’t Find

As recently reported by the New York Times, Google unleashed its analytical power in-house as a part of Google’s management effectiveness project. Applying its data mining genius, Google dug through thousands of performance reviews and other forms of data evaluating managers’ effectiveness in its “quest to build a better boss”. (NY Times, Mar-12-2011)

What qualities would a company identify, you may wonder, that has for many years been named one of the most innovative organizations? That relies heavily on technology and innovation? That brings together a broad range of creative, interdisciplinary experts? That thrives within ever faster innovation cycles? That embraces work style diversity, decentralized collaboration, and virtual team work?

Before reading on, take your guess: What was their number one finding?

Here is the main finding: The number one differentiator between managers doing a good job and those doing a great job were those qualities that make a manager “accessible” to their staff. This involved active listening, coaching your staff and supporting their career development, and being interested in staff members’ success and well-being. (Full list here.)

Did you guess that? Too obvious to bother?

That effective social & emotional skills trump technical expertise in management effectiveness is no real surprise: In fact, the response of literally all organizational development and leadership professionals with whom I discussed this study was like “yes, just what we have been saying all along”.

So do Google’s findings matter?

They do and here is why: It’s still a common push-back among many leaders and organizations that too much emphasis on “people stuff” deters from getting the job done. What you see and hear is polite interest and a “we are results-driven” response. Such skeptics expect – rightfully – an “evidence-based” approach to people effectiveness. “Should we really focus that much on ‘soft factors’?” Google’s findings show that indeed we should! I am sure the project team would have been happy to find something entirely new. Which researcher wouldn’t like that? But by compiling a vast and comprehensive data set that turns “soft skills” into evidence-based success skills, Google makes a strong case for putting healthy people interactions front and center of a successful work culture.

For the most part, we really don’t need yet another “new framework”, or another “Managing-by-XYZ” approach. We know – and have known all along – the crucial pressure points to cultivate high-performing teams. Technical expertise lays the foundation but the quality of people interactions defines the degree of extra-ordinariness. The challenge lies not in finding a heretofore unknown answer – the challenge is to make it happen, to execute on the promise of people excellence.

It’s an old maxim in the field of decision-consulting that a basic neurosis lies in trying to obtain certainty in a world that is not entirely predictable. All you can really do is analyze and improve your odds. Well, then, in the world of organizational effectiveness, a basic neurosis lies in seeking an ever “new magic” bullet to team and managerial effectiveness. Meanwhile, the answer has been right before our eyes.

Comments (2)

  1. [...] influence organizational research about what enables teams to be high-performing. Take Google’s Management Effectiveness Project, the work that has come out of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, or  ideas from MIT’s [...]

  2. [...] been a while since Google’s “Project Oxygen” got a lot of press. Google’s people analytics team has been looking for the crucial [...]

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