Can Google teach federal executives how to manage people?

In recent years, the U.S. government has sought Silicon Valley’s technical expertise when its websites fail.  Now it’s looking to tech’s biggest player to help solve a stubborn problem of another kind: bad bosses.

A few years ago, Google launched a program to convince its wary engineers that good management mattered, even in a tech-driven company. Being Google, the “people analytics” team drew upon lots and lots of data, from employee surveys to supervisors’ performance evaluations and award nominations. From the data, they distilled eight simple, and seemingly obvious, traits that set the good managers apart from the bad ones. Good managers coach and support their employees first and foremost. Bad ones micromanage. Technical expertise, while important, ranked eighth in the list of key traits.

Google repeatedly surveys its workforce to update and score its managers. It gives those who fall short simple, and and seemingly obvious, tasks to do to improve. When a supervisor scores low in career development, they immediately receive a web link that takes them to a registration page for a training course, said Harvard Business School professor David Garvin.

“Easy leads to effective adoption,” he said.

Project Oxygen’s data-driven simplicity has paid off for Google.

“It reinforced the people side of the equation and the importance of effectively managing people,” he said.  “The coaching, communication and career development made a huge difference in reduced attrition, more satisfaction and more willingness to go the extra mile among the engineers.”

The Obama administration has urged agencies to pay attention to their employees’ concerns. But, as the newly released 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows, progress is slow going. Last year, employees’ opinions of their senior leaders dropped to a five-year low. They have improved slightly this year.

“There are a variety of signals from the administration that engaging employees and creating a better working environment are important. Every layer of management is feeling the pressure to improve,” said Justin Johnson, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.

Labor Department tests federal version of Project Oxygen

The CHCO Council and the Performance Improvement Council, which represents federal performance improvement officers, are trying to see whether they can replicate Project Oxygen in the government.

The federal version, dubbed the Modern Government Management Traits pilot, stays true to Google’s eight key behaviors bolstered by simple tips to help managers improve in those areas.

“It takes a starting point that everybody in management roles is not always great at managing. It’s hard to admit, but no one will deny it,” said Kate Josephs, executive director of the Performance Improvement Council. “It’s attractive in its simplicity.” 

The Labor Department’s 100-person Office of the Chief Financial Officer is the government’s first guinea pig. It is focusing on just one of the eight traits: communication. Since June, the bureau’s six supervisors have been holding monthly one-on-one meetings with their employees. (Google says these meetings can help managers become better coaches and meet individuals’ particular needs.) The bureau has provided a cheat sheet of questions to help the managers elicit feedback from their employees about their own performance, the organization and the employees’ careers. The supervisors must pick two more tasks to complete from a menu the PIC has provided. They are not rocket science. One is simply scheduling the monthly meeting as a recurring event on their calendar.

“It’s super easy, which is the whole crux of Project Oxygen,” said Natalie Rico, the project lead for the bureau’s employee engagement efforts.

Under Secretary Tom Perez, the Labor Department has made employees’ satisfaction a priority. Senior leaders have held town hall meetings around the country. The department has launched an online suggestion box for employees. It is also launching a program to increase civility among colleagues. In that context, participating in the Modern Government Management Traits pilot made sense, Rico said. It did not hurt that the program was free and required little time commitment, she said.

“It was something I thought we could sell to the managers,” she said. “At the end of the day, they have a job to do. They’re generally measured on outcomes and outputs. But, in reality, employee engagement affects those outcomes and outputs.”

The bureau conducted a “pulse” survey in late spring to gauge employees’ opinions of their managers’ communication skills. It will do a follow-up survey at the end of the year, she said. After that, it will turn the data over to the PIC for an evaluation.

But Rico says she sees signs that the one-on-one meetings are strengthening relationships between supervisors and employees.

“Some of the managers say it is starting to seem beneficial,” she said. “Employees are opening up more to them and talking about the opportunities they want in their work.”

She expects the program to continue through the rest of the fiscal year.

The government is not Google

Project Oxygen was built for an innovative and relatively flat organization of mostly young overachievers who thrive on data. That’s hardly the description one would use for the federal government.

“We know what works at Google with their population,” said Garvin, the Harvard Business School professor. “We don’t necessarily know that the same eight traits in the same order with the same level of detail and granular support would work in a different setting.”

Key to Project Oxygen’s success was Google employees’ embrace of the data, he said. They are continuously taking surveys, whether it’s the monster “Googlegeist” climate survey or the upper feedback surveys developed specifically to test whether managers were improving under Project Oxygen.

“Evaluation of skills is essential. Many of us suffer from massive self-delusion when it comes to how we’re perceived and the practices we put in place,” Garvin said.

The government has not taken that approach, at least for now. It is relying on data already collected through the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and agencies’ own existing surveys, Josephs said. But she said she hoped agencies would let their data guide their managers’ actions.

“We have a good source of information in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, broken down by components and accessible to many through UnlockTalent.gov,” she said. “We continue to drive home that this is data led, not anecdote led.”

She dismissed the idea that Project Oxygen would not work in a federal environment.

“Because the management traits pilot and Project Oxygen boil it down to the level of human interaction, whether you have a huge bureaucratic structure or hardly anything, there’s commonality,” she said.

Her colleague and the government project’s sponsor, Bethany Blakey, sees similarities between managers at Google and the government, despite the different organizational structures.

“Similar to Google, we have a lot of managers who got there because they were really good in the technical field that they studied and performed for the federal government.  Many of them aren’t comfortable with the managerial role,” she said. “But that’s how you move up, so they do it anyway.”

The CHCO Council has helped recruit agencies to pilot the project, said Johnson. He said he hopes agencies will see it as a flexible and simple alternative to traditional management training classes.

“We’ve all been to management training that is stimulating but you leave and you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “These lay out clear, simple steps. It’s up to a manager to look at them and see the handful of things they can start doing to make improvements.”

Offices within the General Services Administration and the Energy Department also are involved in the pilot. They will take different approaches to Google’s eight traits to see just how customizable the project can be.

If successful, the project could help federal agencies build a cadre of managers who are coaches first and technical experts last, Johnson said.

The ultimate question, he said, is “How do we get more of those kinds of people—the naturally good coaches and listeners—in those roles?”

When hiring new managers, the Office of Personnel Management now places as much, if not more, emphasis on people skills than technical expertise, he said.

“Over time, that’s the real direction in which we’re headed. When we have people who naturally think this way, the better we’ll be,” he said.

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