project oxygen: how google embraces positive psychology

04/24/2011

by carolyn mathews

In 2009, mega-company Google set out to learn what qualities make for a good manager, in a project called “Project Oxygen.” The company poured over quarterly performance reviews, feedback surveys, and interview transcripts – all from Google employees. Then they analyzed the data. The results revealed Eight Good Behaviors, ranked in order of importance, that contribute to being a better manager. (You can find the full article and a list of all eight behaviors and three pitfalls at The New York Times.) I was struck by how the top-three behaviors associated with being a good Google boss are also behaviors embraced by positive psychology research and practice in the workplace. They are:

1. Be a good coach

a. Provide specific and constructive feedback, balancing the negative and the positive

b. Have regular one-on-ones, presenting solutions to problems tailored to your employees’ specific strengths

I wonder if Google is aware of the P/N ratio, which addresses team performance? This ratio, developed by Marcial Losada, is calculated by counting the number of positive comments and negative comments, which at minimum should be ratio of 2.9. In its simplest terms, those who encounter a higher ratio of positive to negative comments (up to a point) can better reach complex understanding, are flexible and creative thinkers, and generally flourish more in the workplace.

The next point mentions enlisting employees’ specific strengths. Google may consider one’s strength to be superior programming capabilities. I argue this is a skill, something that can be learned. An example of a personal strength, in this instance, may be the ability to view challenges on the macro level and then envision and create specific solutions. Again, this topic of strengths is a foundation of positive psychology and is something we promote in all of our clients. Not only should individuals be aware of their personal strengths, but managers should be aware of the strengths within their team so they can get the best work from each team member.

2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage

a. Balance giving freedom to your employees, while still being available for advice. Make “stretch” assignments to help the team tackle big problems.

It stands to reason that managers, who provide a healthy P/N ratio (see number 1, above), boost complex, creative and flexible thinking.  This may well eliminate the need for micromanaging and enable team members to approach their manager for advice when needed. Further, positive psychology  can be seen in the “stretch” assignments. Consider the concept of flow, studied for years by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Also known as being “in the zone,” flow requires the three conditions which align with the stretch assignment. The first is to have involvement in an activity with clear goals. The second is to have a balance between the perceived challenge and the perceived ability. In other words, go ahead and assign a stretch assignment, but make sure that it can be solved and that the team members have confidence that they can meet the goal. The third condition for flow is to have clear and immediate feedback. (See number 1, again.)

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

a. Get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work

b. Make new members of your team feel welcome and help ease their transition

While the last point seems obvious, it is the first example that we again associate with positive psychology. Tom Rath, a Gallup Organization researcher and author of several books including Strengthsfinder 2.0, states the #1 reason people leave their jobs is they do not feel appreciated.  Employees want to be appreciated not only for their skills, but also for who they are as people – and this includes their lives outside of the workplace. There’s no need to dig deep into the personal lives of employees, though. Simple things, such as suggesting someone work from home or take time off to care for an ill child or parent goes a long way to acknowledging that they have lives outside of work.

The remaining five good behaviors on the list can be found in any management text, class, workshop, or article. What sets them apart from other research is that the Google research is internal and extensive, and the results are ranked in order of importance to the employees. I am pleased that the top-three ranked behaviors have a strong correlation with the use of positive psychology in the workplace. We encourage these behaviors in our work with clients. Moreover, we challenge all managers, no matter the size of the organization, to embrace them. I’ll bet, at the very least, the results will include increased productivity and greater retention of your best employees.

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