A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 3, 2015

Superfluous Managers, Emergent Leaders, Notorious Interview Questions and Other Insights on Work Life At Google

The prototypical Silicon Valley techie looks like someone who works at Google. And the office they work in looks like Google, too.

People generally admire the company as an employer - its volume of applicants would make even an Ivy League university gnash its figurative teeth - but the Chinese and Europeans make it sound like the fulcrum at the base of the axis of evil.

So why do so many other organizations attempt to emulate Google?

Laszlo Bock, the company's VP of People Operations, has written a book which he is now dutifully flogging. This is often a sign that someone is about to leave their current employer and so are advertising their personal availability. That may or may not be the case here, but in the following interview he explains how the company's management style emerged and why it is so successful both in attracting desirable employees - and producing profitable products and services.

Creating an alluring perception and then offsetting it with a reputation for scarcity, thereby establishing an aura of enchantment is often an effective strategy. It also helps to give people interesting work, treat them well, pay them even better and measure the results. Sometimes this stuff is so remarkably simple  it's a wonder so few other enterprises dont just do it. JL

Jena McGregor interviews Google VP for People Operations Laszlo Bock in the Washington Post:

Our best leaders were the ones who, when they saw a problem, were conscientious enough to and step in and fix it — and low ego enough and self-aware enough to then step out and let other people fix the next phase.
Laszlo Bock runs "people operations" at Google, an apt title for a human resources department that seems far more like a data-driven laboratory than a mere home for HR administrivia. Only one third of the people he hires for the department have a traditional HR background. The remainder are strategy consultants or hold advanced degrees in subjects as wide ranging as organizational psychology and physics.
Since joining Google in 2006, Bock's team has examined questions like: What's the ideal number of interviewers needed to assess job candidates? And, how does the size of the plates in Google's famous cafeterias affect employees' eating habits?
His upcoming book, Work Rules, shares many of those findings — as well as Google's approach to handling more traditional HR matters, such as promotions and performance reviews. Bock talked to The Post about the biggest mistakes interviewers make, how he tries to keep Google employees from feeling entitled, and why he doesn't email his team on weekends. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What led you to write this book?
Since joining Google, I’ve been able to do some really cool research, running tests about what actually can make people at Google happier and more productive and more effective. I’ve also been lucky enough to bump into a lot of organizations — companies and nonprofits and academics — who have been doing really fascinating work.
I’ve always been a little frustrated and disappointed not only in myself as a leader, but also in how leadership and management work. It occurred to me after a long while that work doesn’t just have to be a means to an end. It doesn’t have to just be misery. We spend more time working than we do on almost anything else in our lives — more time than we do with our loved ones, more time than we do with our kids, more time than we do sleeping. With a little science and a little bit of comparing notes with other organizations and a little testing at Google, we’ve been able to figure out ways to make work better. The hope is that through the book we can make work better everywhere.
What’s the biggest mistake managers make when conducting interviews?
Relying on their own opinion. We all think we’re amazing at assessing character and candidates, but the research shows that what we really do is make an assessment in 10 seconds, based on a first impression. The rest of the time is spent trying to confirm that, even though we don’t know that’s what our brains are doing.
The best thing you can do to fix it is to have a bunch of people (we say four people) interview every candidate. Make sure it’s not just the manager but people who are going to work for, and around, this person. Have every person assign a score, average that score, and make your decision based on that. Everybody has some level of error in their assessment. But when you combine the errors together, they actually cancel out. Some people are a little soft on candidates, some are a little hard on them, some are biased one way, some are biased another.
The second thing you should do is only hire people who are better than you in some way. Unless you walk away thinking, "That person is better than me at organizing things, or running a process, or solving a problem, or selling to customers," you shouldn’t hire that person.
Google allows people to self-nominate for promotion. Have you done any research on what the most successful people have in common when it comes to asking for a promotion? 
At Google, when you nominate yourself for promotion, there’s a process where you show the work you’ve completed, the impact you’ve had, and you get internal references. There's not really a trick to it, because as much as possible it actually runs a lot like our hiring process. We try to be objective.
One thing that’s interesting, though, is that people often assume: If I’m up for promotion, I have to look like I’m perfect. I can’t show any weakness, I can’t show any room for development. But people who try to game it that way actually don’t do as well in the promotion process.
Google is known for its perks and benefits. Do you worry about creating an environment of ever-escalating expectations?
I worry about it all the time. The psychological phenomenon is called habituation. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. Whatever’s in our environment, we get used to it. So that’s a challenge. A lot of the things Google does that were special have become standard in Silicon Valley. If you go around to other technology companies, their offices look a lot like our offices.
There’s a couple of ways to guard against it. We had a gentleman named Shawn Achor come to our re:Work conference last year, and he talked about how you can make yourself happier by spending a few minutes a day sending thank-you notes to people. So we’ve encouraged people to do that. We’ve found that when people behave in a way that appears more grateful, they actually become less entitled.
The last thing is: There are a lot of things we have at the company, but if it doesn’t make sense anymore, we take it away. We used to offer a $5000 reimbursement if you bought a hybrid car, and we took that away. It stopped being an incentive, and merely became a subsidy to Toyota to buy Priuses. Googlers were cranky and we explained it, and then we moved on. Taking stuff away and explaining why goes a long way to fighting that entitlement we worry about.
Last year Google released its diversity statistics. It was seen as groundbreaking at the time, and a lot of other companies followed suit.  How did you come to that decision? 
It was just the right thing to do. There’s a tremendous diversity problem in the technology industry, in academia, in the paths leading to this industry. But also, when women get into this industry with computer science degrees, they tend to opt out of it after a while, and at pretty significant rates.
We realized that, unless we were open and honest about that, we wouldn’t be able to make the kind of progress that we wanted to at Google and that we thought our industry needed to. So we decided to go public with the data.
We actually had a lot of conversations about it: Is this going to trigger a lot of lawsuits? What’s going to happen as a result of this? We decided whatever the consequence, the right thing to do is to start this conversation and follow it up with action. To do one without the other wouldn’t give us a benchmark for knowing whether we're improving or not, or how far we have to go.
Were you surprised at how many companies released their numbers, too? 
We had no idea what was going to happen, we really didn’t. We’re going to republish our data with an update this summer, and it’s not going to show huge changes. It’s going to take awhile to attract people to the field and let them grow up in it. We’re going to keep at it for as long as it takes.
It was only recently that [Google executive chairman] Eric Schmidt was called out for interrupting U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith on a panel. Is there more the company is doing, or could be doing, about unconscious bias — particularly in an industry that has gotten such a reputation for it?
Speaking as an author, not as a Google employee, I don't think we could ever do enough, honestly, until everyone feels safe in expressing who they are. Unconscious bias is a piece of it, but in a way it addresses a very high-class problem. In most of Corporate America you don’t see huge, in-your-face manifestations of racism or sexism, but in a lot of parts of society you do. So unconscious bias is only a piece of it.
In the last six months, we’ve been having a lot of pointed conversations about this very issue inside the company. There’s a lot we’re doing differently that I can’t speak about publicly at this point, but I can say we are doing things in this space in terms of partnerships, outreach, supporting education. You’re touching on a very deep and real issue.
You did a research project at Google called Project Oxygen that looked into whether managers mattered. Did the research show you any under-appreciated leadership traits that managers have?
Two things. One that’s not a huge surprise was this idea of emergent leadership. It's stepping in and solving a problem and, importantly, being willing to step back when your piece is done. We discovered that actually made a really big difference, and it’s so important that it became a core part of our hiring rubric.
When I joined Google, we used to look for very traditional outward metrics or indicators of leadership when we were hiring. What we discovered was our best leaders actually weren’t necessarily captain of the football team or president of the chess club. Instead our best leaders were the ones who, when they saw a problem, were conscientious enough to and step in and fix it — and low ego enough and self-aware enough to then step out and let other people fix the next phase.
The second thing, and this was a surprise, was that once you start measuring something, you actually don’t need to teach people a whole bunch about it. We have this survey, where every six months we ask teams what they think of their manager. What someone's team thinks is reality: If I think my boss is a jerk, it doesn’t matter if he’s nice to puppies and kittens and gives me a gift on my birthday.
So we started publishing this data internally, showing where people were in relation to other Google managers. And even before we built training around it, they started improving. If you survey your people on what they think about your managers, then tell the managers where they fall on the distribution, most managers are going to work to get better.
In the book, you talk about an idea called “Dublin Goes Dark.” What was that, and what else is being done at Google to help prevent technology from being all-consuming in employees' lives? 
It came out of our Google DNA survey. We found there were "segmenters," or people for whom work and life are two separate things. They can check their email right before going to bed, but they don’t worry about it. Then there were "integrators," where work and life are all bundled together. They do the same things, but psychologically it affects them differently. They sort of can’t get away from work. What’s interesting is two-thirds of the company are integrators, but half of those wish they were segmenters.
Our Dublin team said, "Why don’t we just try forcing everyone to be a segmenter just for one night a week?" It grew virally: First it was just the people operations team in Dublin, then people operations in all of Europe, and then the Dublin office, which is thousands and thousands of people. People loved it. It was such a release.
But the insight is that you actually need a peer group to support you. We've had people say they’re gong to have no-meeting Thursdays, and that works until they're dependent on another team. Then suddenly you’re getting pinged from outside your group and your Thursdays are shot. It’s important to set up and define a group that’s all going to abide by those rules.
I decided I was not going to send emails to my team on weekends. So from Friday nights to Monday mornings, I don’t send emails unless it’s an absolute emergency. The effect has been that my direct reports don’t sent out as many emails over the weekends, and then their direct reports don't either. The volume of traffic has gone down. People just focus on what’s most important and what is really urgent


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