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Soft skills and engineers: Google’s Project Oxygen pt2


John Sadowsky concludes his feature about a recent project at Google that highlights how soft skills can influence managerial style across an organisation.

In their bosses, do engineers value soft skills more than hard technical knowledge? 

It was in a second phase, when the Project Oxygen team began ranking the eight elements by level of importance, that the results became far more enlightening. When the research team performed lengthy interviews with managers to gather more data and then synthesised the results, a surprising trend emerged. In some ways, information from these interviews turned notions of management at Google upside-down.
When a company uses internal data and prioritises the findings, the outcome is far more than some standard inventory of skills that a person should focus on to be a good manager; it is a list that tells people exactly what works in their environment. Furthermore, it gives top management a clear and sometimes surprising view of what employees value in their bosses.
In Google's case, the most unexpected result for company leaders was that employees ranked the characteristic Google had always considered most important for its managers—deep technical expertise—dead last. Additionally, it came to light that the hands-off management style that Google and other high-tech startups often espouse was not at all what employees wanted.
"What people value most, according to Google's study, are fair and even-keeled bosses who make time for one-on-one meetings, who take an interest in their subordinates' lives and careers."
According to Bock, 'It turns out that [technical prowess] is the least important thing. It's important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is making that connection and being accessible.'
What people value most, according to Google's study, are fair and even-keeled bosses who make time for one-on-one meetings, who take an interest in their subordinates' lives and careers. In the end, what employees seem to want is quite simple; personal relationships with their bosses.
Far more than managers with technical expertise, people want bosses who make connections with them and give them time. More than asking that their bosses help them with technology problems, they are saying 'get to know me as a person and help me develop.'
Removing the bias against soft skills in high tech
As I have often seen in my work with technology companies many employees, engineers in particular, have a tendency to harbour a bias against the human resource function. HR is often accused of being a 'soft' science, relying more on gut and instinct than on factual analysis.
Studies such as Project Oxygen may help lessen this anti-HR bias. With the capability of managing information in ways that have never existed before, companies will be able to apply data-driven approaches to the often-irrational world of human behavior and interaction.
What are some of the things we might learn from Google's research? Though the findings come from inside one uniquely successful and forward-thinking organisation, how might the lessons apply to the rest of the world?
To me, there are a number of far-reaching implications of Project Oxygen. Here are two that I find of particular interest:
1. The notion that technology can replace management may be a misconception.
Today's common wisdom says that young knowledge workers see little value in reporting to someone who keeps track of what they do or provides technical assistance, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine.
Representative of this point of view is a Harvard Business Review article from January 2011, in which London Business School professor Lynda Gratton writes that technology will become the new middle manager. In 'The End of the Middle Manager', she states that many of the functions of a middle manager can now be performed without human intervention, since technology '...can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports and presentations.' 
Moreover, the article asserts that today's knowledge workers are often engineers organised in highly skilled teams that are increasingly self-managed. Thanks to the Internet and search engines, everyone can know something about everything. If the middle manager was once a source of knowledge and information, Google and Wikipedia can now perform this function.
The findings of Project Oxygen seem to refute the idea that the modern technical worker prefers to be left alone, or that technology and self-managing groups will lead to the demise of the middle manager. The concept that high-tech companies, or any company for that matter, will require fewer managers discounts completely the manager's vital role in people development. More than anything else, an employee's growth is influenced by the quality of direct contact with his immediate boss.
2. There is perhaps a mistaken impression that a new generation of workers does not want to be managed. 
In conversations in the workplace and in business schools, as well as in numerous articles of the past few years, we have been told all about why the Millennial Generation is different. They grew up with technology; they are problem solvers who like to be left alone. They are free spirits who move from task to task and do not like to make commitments.
"The concept that high-tech companies, or any company for that matter, will require fewer managers discounts completely the manager's vital role in people development."
While some of these assertions are certainly true, an enlightening piece in the Spring 2012 issue of Strategy and Businessasserts that many of the stereotypes associated with this generation of worker may be misleading. In 'Five Millennial Myths', Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, writes that her in-depth studies reveal little fundamental difference from earlier eras with respect to what young workers seek in their jobs. Similarly to previous generations, people entering the workforce are looking for meaning in their work and in their relationships with bosses and colleagues.
The findings of Project Oxygen appear to bear out the conclusions of Deal's research. Above all else, the workers at Google want managers who give them face-to-face time, and who connect with them in ways that help them learn and grow.
Does all this mean more emphasis on soft skills, even in hard-driving technology environments such as Google? Now, we can say that the data seems to be telling us so.
John Sadowsky is an internationally renowned leadership coach and inspirational speaker with over 20 years experience on five continents. He is the author of several books about the use of narrative in business and leadership. John is Distinguished Professor of Management at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Find more information and read John's blog at


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