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Google Says: "Managers Are Important"

Robert Greiner
Robert Greiner
2 min read

In 2002 - four years after inception - Google decided to perform an experiment. Restructure the company to be completely flat - No managers! Theoretically, this change would allow engineers to have complete freedom when developing applications, which in turn, would lead to greater innovation. While this idea may make sense to some, the experiment only lasted a few short months before being shut down.

The reason we don't see a completely-flat Google today is twofold. Firstly, managers (and other means of organizational structure) reduce the communication complexity that exists in all organizations - the more people or "nodes" you need to connect to, the more difficult communication becomes. With some hierarchy, you can delegate approving vacations or expense reports, handle interpersonal conflicts, and have more people to deal with day-to-day issues and questions. As the flatness of the organization approaches zero, the CEO is burdened with too much administrative-trivia and therefore is unable to focus on shaping a vision for the future.

Secondly, and perhaps just as important, managers have the greatest influence on their direct reports in comparison to anyone else in the company. This means that your manager has the power to make your life either awesome or miserable. Great managers stretch their team and help them grow individually and as a group. Poor managers introduce stress and dysfunction into the professional lives of their direct reports which, more often than not, carries over into their personal lives.

Engineers hate being micromanaged on the technical side,” he

observes, “but they love being closely managed on the career side. - Eric Clayberg (Googler - HBR December 2013)

According to Google, a good manager:

  • Is a good coach
  • Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • Expresses interest 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

Now, if you are like me, your initial reaction to this list was "yeah, that makes sense". And, while the advice above seems obvious, it carries with it the exact same rigor and analysis Google puts into every one of their projects. This means, you now have a concrete set of criteria to judge yourself against and improve upon. No more guessing about what behaviors are important, the groundwork has already been done for you.

One of the findings I found most interesting was that lowest scoring managers improved the most. This is both powerful and encouraging since making a few small adjustments to your management style can significantly improve your skills as a manager, as well as how much your team values you. You don't have to change who you are you only need to focus on what you do to be successful.

Managing people is a big deal. You play a significant role in the success and job satisfaction of your direct reports. They rely on you to act fairly and help them get better every year. Google's research into the topic of what makes a good manager gives us an actionable framework to assess and improve our skills to ensure our team is happy and we are getting their very best.

Source: How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management - Harvard Business Review - December 2013

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Professional optimist. I write a weekly newsletter for humans at the intersection of business, technology, leadership, and career growth.

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