It’s that time of year again. Google, one of the world’s biggest and most profitable companies, has published what it has learned about good management.

As per previous years, this has generated lots of excitable commentary about what we in turn can learn from the hyper-successful company.

And as per previous years, it’s a pointless waste of money that reveals nothing new, undertaken by a company that arguably has a very poor record for basic managerial competence. We’ll look at exactly why this is at best an exercise in supreme silliness in a minute, but first a recap on the research.

The Oxygen of publicity

Back in 2008 Google started Project Oxygen, an “effort to determine what makes a manager great at Google”. They decided to devote lots of time and money to doing this for three reasons; because several hundred years of research into this subject was most likely wrong; workers in the technology sector are generally renowned for their first-rate interpersonal skills and ground-breaking approach to management; and Google knows better than everyone else about everything.

Actually I’m guessing at those three reasons, but you might see the point I’m trying to make. Nevertheless, we are where we are so let’s look at what they learned.

The results were published ten years ago, with Google proudly revealing the eight traits of a good manager. We won’t list them all here, but they include attributes such as being productive, setting the direction of the team, being good at your job, expressing interest in the success of the team, and being a good communicator.

This resulted in large amounts of publicity, and Google have updated the list every year since then, with the latest results published this week.

Which brings us to the point of this article; four reasons why you should not care in the slightest what they have found.

#1. You know this already

There’s a small tribe in the jungle of Papua New Guinea as yet undiscovered to the wider world. When I make contact with this tribe I will ask them – using hand signals most likely, as I suspect language might be a barrier – what good management looks like.

They will tell me that listening and talking, giving clear instructions, and focusing on results are quite important. They will also mention that being good at what you do is helpful. They will tell me, in other words, exactly what Google are telling me this week.

That’s because there is nothing remotely insightful in Google’s list. For centuries, every manager ever, like, in the entire world, has known what Google has learned since 2008. Perhaps Google will argue that their research is more robust, to which several thousand professors in this field might politely demur. But the bottom line is that at no point in the last ten years has Google uncovered anything helpful or new about good management.

#2 You knew this in 2008

An updated list is published by Google, based on new data, every year. Have a look at all these lists and you’ll see that not much changes. That’s mostly because these traits are somewhat timeless and we shouldn’t expect good managers to have to change their core skills every 12 months.

So you won’t learn anything new this year. But pause for just a moment and think about this; how do you think the conversation goes in Mountain View when some bright young analyst proudly bursts in to their boss’s office with this year’s findings?

“Boss! Boss! We’ve got the latest Oxygen results!”

“Excellent! What have we learned this year?”

“We’ve learned that nothing has changed, boss! Nothing at all! Isn’t that awesome?”

At this point the boss might pause for a moment. They might think about the size and cost of the team that has been working on this for a decade. Perhaps they’ll ponder how much time Google’s 100,000 employees have spent answering the questions this research is based on, and what they might have been working on instead.

They should certainly remind themselves of number four on Google’s list; “a good manager is productive and results-oriented”, and they might just wonder whether doing the same thing for ten years and getting the same results qualifies as good management.  

#3. The Halo Effect

Google is famously a pretty cool place to work; there’s free food everywhere, their offices have crazy features like slides and sleep pods, and they work on hyper-innovative moonshots such as energy kites, smart glasses and drone delivery. To cap it all, it’s also extremely successful and highly profitable.

When all these features are combined, they tend to trigger the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias in which people respond positively to one feature – good looks in a person, say – and extrapolate this to make positive associations about completely unrelated traits such as intelligence or personality.

As almost every consultant will tell you, the Halo Effect plays out in the corporate world when their clients ask them “yes, but what does Google do about this?”

Looked another way, Google is a company with a monopolistic share of an enormous and highly profitable global market. It regularly gets into trouble with regulators who accuse it of acting aggressively to defend its monopoly position.

Almost all companies have a definition of good management. Don’t let the halo effect of high profits and cool offices convince you that Google’s opinion is worth paying attention to any more than anyone else’s.

#4. $90 million

No matter how many times you read Google’s list, you won’t see anything in there about good managers being accused of sexual misconduct. Nor does a good manager ignore such allegations when an internal investigation finds them credible, let alone pay $90m in severance to the accused.

Google did this. It’s also going backwards when it comes to women in leadership roles, despite their research showing that good management involves “creating an inclusive team environment” (#3) and “supporting career progression” (#6), and its general progress in diversity is glacial.

No company is perfect of course, but when one hits the headlines for some pretty poor attempts to display basic managerial skills then should you really listen when they claim to know what good looks like?

Defining what the basic principles of good management looks like is not that difficult. It is a well-researched subject, and even without this research, a little common sense goes a long way.

Google have spent a decade of time and resources churning out research that adds nothing to the field, while also creating a lot of publicity for failing to apply some of these fairly obvious principles.

Surely it’s time for us to stop giving this project any more oxygen?

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