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Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First

Q:  What is the best way to get analytical engineers to be “squishy”?

A:  Project Oxygen is a good first step

It’s a stretch for most people to think about “analytics” and “human resources” in the same meme.  Those “people people” are so extroverted and those “geeks” are so introverted that it seems that never the twain shall meet.  But what if you combined the thinking of the geek with the empathy of a personnel manager?  Et voila! You get Project Oxygen.

Project Oxygen is an effort by Google to find out what makes a boss “good”.   In a company of engineers, they assumed it was engineering skills. But they were wrong.

Google managers had a much greater impact on the performance of employees and how those employees felt about their jobs than they imagined. And it wasn’t engineering expertise that made the managers well-regarded; it was their people skills.

How did they find this out?  Well, they did what Google does best; they mined their data.  Google’s vice president for people operations, Laszlo Bock, applied an analytical approach to their people management. And what he found out surprised him.  He learned that his engineers valued “the ability to code” last in a list of desired manager attributes, and “even-keeled” bosses who made time to talk with their team members and took an interest in employees’ lives as the most valuable attribute.[1]

Once Google understood – from their own data – what the problems were in managing their employees, they began training programs targeted to those findings.  Google began to offer coaching and performance review techniques for managers and within six months found improvements in management behaviors.

While none of this sounds like rocket science, the money this potentially saved Google was probably substantial, as turnover costs undoubtedly decreased.  Google, as usual, has been a step ahead in understanding and using business analytics to manage their human resource strategies and has applied the same rigor to H.R. that they use for business development.   It’s a lesson for us all.  Time for a whiff of oxygen.

For more information about business analytics for talent management, visit MEP’s webpage.


[1] Bryant, Adam.  Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. New York Times. March 12, 2012.

About the author

Stacey Wagner

Guest blogger Stacey Jarrett Wagner has more than 20 years of experience in workforce development, conducting research and providing strategic thinking and technical assistance on workforce development issues.

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It's not surprising to me that "people skills" were found to be important in making a good boss. After all, we all work with people. The trick is getting the Artists, Innovators and the Detail people to know and believe that they are on the same team and that everyone is valuable and important to a successful outcome. The manager that creates that kind of culture is worth keeping.
In the 90's, we finally realized the value of "soft skills" when we attempted to train hundreds of engineers to be Six Sigma Black Belts. Moving quants toward project management roles for the hundreds of team efforts triggered by the Six Sigma (and earlier TQM) efforts required special mentors that we found after some experimenting with consultants vs in-house coaches. Professional "soft skills" gurus are not created equal, and many promote academic management style models that were less than effective in the still-technical factories. But many sites found the right mix of mentor skills and business results. They key seemed to be the sharing of customer information that was formerly hidden from factory engineers except during audit crises. Amazingly, engineers identify with customer satisfaction more than many VP's, who often saw the customer complaints as an aggravation rather than an opportunity. New open sharing of chronic customer complaints led to stronger teams, and respect for their leaders.

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