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What Makes a Good Boss?


By Dr. Teresa SHAFER

I’ve been fascinated with this company for a long time, but more so since a team from Tiffin University (TU) visited its corporate campus in the fall of 2015. During our visit I was struck by the oddity of the corporate and office layout. There were very few walls, no obvious divisions among teams and their leaders’ offices and lots of glass so everyone could see everyone while working. And I’ve always wondered what the impact was for spending so much effort and attention on employee satisfaction that seemed to have nothing to do with the work of the company. For example, a ball pit play area was in the middle of one of the floors. A meditation chair was in another corner. Snacks were everywhere, in addition to having day care, barber shops, car repair services and medical offices all within the Google campus. So what does all this have to do with running a successful organization?

Much has been written about Google and its quest for creating a unique experience for its employees, but seeing it first-hand made those things come alive and continues to make me curious about the “Google Magic” if there is such a thing. So when I read Michael Schneider’s (2017) article “Google Employees Weighed in on What Makes a Highly Effective Manager. Technical Expertise Came in Dead Last” I was intrigued.

Upon further research, I discovered that much of this work came from the company’s study in 2009 called “Project Oxygen” undertaken by Lazlo Bock, then Vice President for People Operations, which is Google speak for Human Resources. This study was trying to determine how to build a better boss. So the research team began data-mining and analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards and correlating phrases, words, praises and complaints. Later in 2009, the team’s findings produced the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.” So while the findings might not surprise anyone, their ranking might:

1. be a good coach;

2. empower your team and don’t micromanage;

3. express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being;

4. don’t be a sissy: be productive and results-oriented;

5. be a good communicator and listen to your team;

6. help your employees with career development;

7. have a clear vision and strategy for the team;

8. have key technical skills so you can help advise the team.

The biggest surprise for many, including the research team, was that technical ability ranked at the bottom of the list. No less surprising was that vision was at the bottom too. Google had always believed that to be a good manager, particularly on the engineering side, you needed to be as good or better a technical expert than the people who worked for you. Yet Bock’s work said technical expertise was the least important thing and paled in comparison to more important skills such as just making connections an being assessable. Bock said that once the company started applying its findings, „We were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75% of our worst-performing managers”. (Bryant, 2011)

You can imagine that when Google released its findings many HR professionals and professors took notice of the obvious contractions: a tech company saying tech skills weren’t a top priority for good managers? Just as Google’s hiring practice had been, many of us thought you had to be a great “doer” at a lower level before you were promoted to manage others. But after many studies revealed that even the most talented among us fail more often than succeed as bosses, especially at the C-level, researchers have been trying to find that magic formula for what makes a good boss.

As someone who teaches HR and works hard to find credible research in the area, these finding run counter to the normal gut instincts that most HR units operate under. But more and more companies are trying to apply data-driven approaches to the unpredictable world of human interactions. And with Google leading the way, HR approaches are changing.

We’ve learned in HR from various studies that people tend to leave organizations for one of three main reasons or some combination of them. First, they don’t feel a connection to the mission of the company or a sense that their work matters. Second, they don’t really like or respect their co-workers. And third, they have a terrible boss, with this reason being the most significant. With recruiting, hiring, onboarding and professional development for new employees being so costly, making progress to address these reasons is critical to the bottom line of every company. Thus the importance of the work that Google is doing to “build a better boss.”

Adding to this work, a former Google executive and now top CEO Coach, Kim Scott, says the number one trait that great bosses share is “radical candor” with their employees, which has two components: caring about employees and establishing open and honest conversations. “It’s not enough to care about people’s ability to perform a job, you have to go beyond being professional, you have to want to get to know your employees on a human level,” she says. “It’s about giving a damn,” she emphasized in her book “Radical Candor.” (Scott, 2017)

So how does one do that? She claims it’s not about memorizing birthdays or family member names but having real conversations beyond work topics. Perhaps counterintuitive to many, but it’s about acknowledging that your employees are people with lives and aspirations that extend beyond those related to shared work. But it’s not enough for the boss to do this, it’s about encouraging everyone who reports to you to do the same thing.

Having open and honest conversation, according to Scott, involves discussions when things are good and when things aren’t. Speaking honestly about someone’s performance shows that you care and finding ways to help when things aren’t going so well, also shows you care. By challenging people to do better and offering to help them, builds trust. Scott adds that “Caring personally about people even as you challenge them will build the best relationships of your career”. (Scott, 2017)

So how does Bock’s work in 2009 and Scott’s findings in 2017 help us today? Again, I’m struck by Schneider’s recent article. The original Eight Habits seem to be holding true. But after further analysis of over 10,000 managers, what employees really want are even-keeled bosses, managers who help people puzzle through problems and who take an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

So if we buy in to this new or continuing perspective, how do we teach “caring” skills to newly appointed supervisors? Or more specifically, how do I teach my students to recognize the value of these “soft skills” over the more easily understood “hard skills”? I know in my tenure of working with my Romanian students, it’s the soft skills that are always the toughest to get across and the hardest to define. And professional development in this area is also limited. Teaching someone to be “nice” is a hard task because we’re fighting the traditional paradigm that bosses need to be firm and have distance from their employees as a way to inspire respect and hard work. Tough managers mistakenly believe that putting pressure on employees increases performance. But in actuality, it produces stress and research says stress leads to higher costs for employers in terms of health care and turnover costs. A number of Harvard researchers have discovered that “nice” managers’ employees fare better, are more productive, display more citizenship behavior both individually and as team members. Jonathan Haidt of NYU’s Stern School of Business discovered that when leaders are self-sacrificing, their employees are inspired and as a consequence are more loyal and committed and are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful and friendly to other employees. (Seppala, 2014)

So I’m back again to how do we teach this to new managers or students. I spend a lot of time in my courses trying to get students to understand their own motivations; what drives them in terms of their interactions with others. I use Elias Porter’s (1989) “Strength Deployment Inventory” (SDI) to help crystalize these ideas for students. In his “Relationship Awareness Theory”, Porter suggests that we are motivated to behave or interact with others in certain preferred ways because those interactions are more satisfying to us. And if behaving a certain way brings more personal satisfaction then we will strive to seek out interactions that increase our satisfaction. Seems logical, right.

So as managers, if we take Porter’s ideas on improving overall interactions and relationships with others and we tie it to Bock’s work on what manager behaviors are important to employees, then it appears we need to do a better job of understanding who we work with and strive to create environments that allow them to have more satisfying interactions. If we can accomplish these two things, then it allows managers to display to their employees that they care. Or as Bock concludes, “You don’t actually need to change who the person is. What it means is, if I’m a manager and I want to get better, and I want more out of my people and I want them to be happier, two of the most important things I can do is just make sure I have some time for them and to be consistent. And that’s more important than doing the rest of the stuff.


Bryant, A. (2011), “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss.”, The New York Times.

Porter, E.H. & Maloney, S.E. (1989), “Strength Deployment Inventory”, Pacific Palisades: Personal Strengths Publishing.

Schneider, M. (2017), “Google Employees Weighed In on What Makes a Highly Effective Manager. Technical Expertise Came in Dead Last”, Lead.

Seppala, E. (2014), “The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss”, Harvard Business Review.

Scott, K. (2019), “Radical Candor”, St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan, New Jersey.

Dr. Teresa E. SHAFER, PH.D.

Tiffin University, Vice President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness, Professor of Management

Shafer has served in numerous positions at Tiffin University over her nearly 25 year tenure with the institution. She has been instrumental in the management of TU’s Executive MBA program partnership in Bucharest and regularly teaches courses on Leadership and Influence and Human Resource Management. Along with her colleagues, she believes this program is the best experience she has had during her career in higher education. “I am most proud of our students and their success in our Romanian program. My heart is in the country and how together we’ve been able to positively impact the future of this region.” Shafer also consults with numerous organizations about various human resource issues and also provides supervisory training programs.

Published in Cariere magazine