The Boring Trait Google Looks For in Its Leaders

Google-Executives-Larry-Page-Eric-Schmidt-Sergey-Brin

The prototypical leader is a hero: gives the rousing speech, inspires the troops, and shows up at the last minute to save the day. At least that’s how leaders are portrayed. but that’s not at all what Google discovered as their most important qualities.

At Google, they’re obsessive about looking at data to determine what makes employees successful and what they found in the numbers was surprising.

The most important character trait of a leader is one that you’re more likely to associate with a dull person than a dynamic leader: predictability. The more predictable you are, day after day, the better.

Google People Operations on Leadership

Taking an evidence-based approach rather than a gut-driven one, Google debunks conventional wisdom on how to build an awesome team. Twice a year, anyone who has a manager gets to review their boss in an “upward feedback survey,” considering performance across 12 to 18 different factors. So Google has reams of data, tens of thousands of data points of on-the-job success, to understand what they should look for in new hires.

When they crunched the numbers on the question of what makes a successful leader, what they found out was remarkable for its overlooked common sense. Leaders must be predictable and consistent, because then employees grasp “that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want.”

In other words, when managers are predictable, they remove a roadblock from employees’ path — themselves. Managers have their own tendency to meddle, criticize, and second-guess. Without that roadblock, employees don’t have to worry about whether their manager will try to jump in and “save the day” with some new idea. Instead, they have the space necessary to do an amazing job.

On the flip side, “[i]f your manager is all over the place, you’re never going to know what you can do, and you’re going to experience it as very restrictive.”

As Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google put it, “[i]f a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom.”

Autonomy is the key to employee happiness and outsized performance

The freedom that a consistent leader provides is a powerful force because having autonomy over one’s work is one of the most potent motivators of personal productivity.

In 2004, psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan conducted a study of hundreds of associates at an investment bank on their job satisfaction. They found that the highest job satisfaction ratings came from employees whose bosses offered “autonomy support” — that is, acknowledgment, encouragement, and structure around getting work done as the employee determines, not the manager.

The kicker is that Deci and Ryan also discovered that the employees with autonomy were not only the happiest, they were also the ones with the highest job performance.

* * * * *

Great leadership is never about being a dramatic hero. It’s just not about you. Instead it’s about providing support to your team by being willing to be seen as boring and predictable.

Provide information they need, work from their perspective, cultivate their performance by offering them the oxygen to succeed. Then they’ll have the breathing room and self-determination to shine.

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  • http://krishanvpatel.com/ Krishan

    @Walter, I am really happy to see this reposted to Business Insider. As a management consultant, I have seen managers in both ends of the spectrum — I am grateful for the consistency that creates freedom.

    Loving the work you guys are doing around slow web. And, by the way: Go blue!

    • http://smalter.org smalter

      Thanks, Krishan! We’re not only fellow UM grads, I think we’re also both in New York.

      Drop by the iDoneThis office sometime: 47 Great Jones near Bowery

      • http://krishanvpatel.com/ Krishan

        Will do!

  • http://www.lifeschooled.com/ Daniel Gardner

    Excellent read! Thanks for sharing the study and its results.

  • Anish Aravind

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc
    Good article Walter – it took me back to this RSAnimate piece from some time back..

  • http://twitter.com/smohkim Sardar Mohkim Khan

    Thanks Walter for sharing this. Being a manager myself, i firmly believe that each one of my team members need to be autonomous and “own completely” the tasks they are assigned. It somehow just improves their output and effectiveness of the work.

    Best,
    Sardar

  • Shmintelli Gent

    Aren’t you confusing things here? Consistent and stable are NOT the opposite of micro-manager, or meddlesome, or dynamic, or charismatic. A manager can be consistently meddlesome, or consistently dynamic. Boring leaders DON’T increase productivity. On any project in any company, there are good days and bad days and dynamic managers can motivate people, get them over mental challenges, network within the organization to resolve roadblocks.

    The main point here is for a team to be successful, managers need to delegate, provide autonomy (and guidance, where required), remove barriers, communicate goals and success metrics clearly and repeatedly, and track execution and adapt along the way.

    BTW, there has been umpteen research on Job design and Worker autonomy for several decades. This is not a new nugget.

  • Alfred Fuhr

    Yes. Yes, Yes.

  • Tom Hall

    Really good read, thanks Walter. Autonomy is key – and it’s great to see some data backing it up!

  • Dr. Buchenrad

    Innovators are not predictable. If they were then the ideas that they have would have already been thought of. Based on my experiences with and study of leadership and the context I have of the word “predictable,” “predictable” leaders restrict free thinking, not encourage it. They thrive on strict procedures and bureaucracy. Why are “predictable” people put in lower management? Because upper management knows that they will unquestionably follow orders and work toward the same goals, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes for a very well oiled machine; provided that there is a good navigator up top, but as soon as someone comes along with a good idea that does not align with those goals, because of the narrowmindedness of the leadership, the idea is pushed aside and never realized. So if employee autonomy leading to the freedom to have and realize ideas is the goal, “predictable” management seems counter productive. Now my context of “predictability” may be different than that of the article, but this is still an important thing to understand.

    • Dr. Buchenrad

      Also after reading the comments I am morally bound to say:

      Go Bucks!