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Why It Matters: Google's Project Oxygen

You may have heard of the multinational technology conglomerate Google. At least for now, they may not have an airline or flight support platform in their product offerings (yet). However, Google has a renowned work culture centered around positivity and employee well-being, so much so that organizations from countless industries often bring Googlers in as consultants to influence their own. Look at how far they have come since launching as a research project in 1998. Headquartered in Mountain View, CA, Google has over 70 offices in 50-plus countries, spanning almost 140,000 employees.

They even have their own airport (KNUQ - Moffett Airfield), which has one of the world's largest free-standing structures. Hangar 1 was built in the 1950s to store airships, which you probably know aren't really a thing anymore. Regardless, the hangar still stands today. In 2022, Google launched Operation Tenacious to provide a much-needed restoration to the massive hangar.

I also feel compelled to mention I am a heavy user of Google's platforms. I am writing this rough draft on Google Docs and will eventually post it using Chrome. I do not think I need to expand more; the results speak for themself. Greatness of this magnitude cannot be achieved without breeding a culture of excellence.

In my experience, aviation organizations do not highlight the importance of workforce culture nearly as much as other comparable industries. Sure, it is not always the case - I know of a smaller-sized commercial service airport that allocates $60,000 annually into its operating budget just for training and education. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey will periodically pay to bring A.A.A.E. training in-house for those interested and offer a complete Masters in Public Administration program through Fairleigh Dickinson University. And, of course, there is Southwest.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon a New York Times Bestseller titled Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, written by former Googler Laszlo Bock, the co-founder and CEO of the software company Humu. He served as Vice President of People Operations at Google for several years, where, during his tenure, Google had been named “Best Company to Work For” over 30 times across the globe and received over 100 awards for its role as a top employer. Additionally, Bock served in an executive position at General Electric and spent time early in his career at the distinguished consulting firm McKinsey & Company. All this is to say the guy is pretty legit, and the book is quite captivatingly written for those like myself who enjoy nonfiction business literature. If nothing else, we are provided a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a Googler and describe how the organization has been able to climb as a leader in so many segments of technology.

In 2008, Google launched the People and Innovation Lab (PiLab), which, according to Bock, was formed “as an internal research team to advance the science of how people experience work.” The PiLab spent no time getting to work, launching a handful of research projects to study their workforce and answer several questions.

  • Project Oxygen - set out with the objective of proving that managers do not matter. Anyone can prove managers matter with obvious truths, but proving they do not matter presents a more significant challenge.

  • Project Gifted Youngsters - set out to explain what people who sustain the highest performance for extended periods do differently.

  • The Honeydew Enterprise (named after Bunsen Honeydew, who innovated The Muppets) - set out to understand the behaviors and practices that most foster and inhibit innovation amongst software engineers.

  • Project Milgram (named after Stanley Milgram, who fostered the Six Degrees of Separation theory) - explored the most effective ways to mine social networks for knowledge across the entire Google organization.

The most significant of the efforts above was Project Oxygen, launched when an executive asked, “What if everyone at Google had an amazing manager?” Google’s Head of the Human/Social Dynamics program in Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (what a title), Neal Patel, explained for himself,

“Google has high standards of proof, even for what, at other places, might be considered obvious truths. Simple correlations weren’t going to be enough. So we actually ended up trying to prove the opposite case - that managers don’t matter. Luckily, we failed.”


To comprehend the significance of this project, there is one thing you must understand. At most prominent organizations, there is almost always a niche group of individuals that do not vibe with managers. You may be able to think of your examples, but this group is the engineers at Google.

Bock explains, “Engineers at Google deeply believed that managers don’t matter. On the face of it, that may sound preposterous. But you have to understand how much engineers hate management. They don’t like managers and don’t want to become managers. Engineers generally think managers are at best a necessary evil, but mainly they get in the way, create bureaucracy, and screw things up.”

It was such a deeply held belief that, for six weeks, every management position was eliminated by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2002. When hiring, Google's benchmark principle is that an engineering manager must be at least “as technically capable of his or her team.” When this is not the case, their team does not respect the manager.

Often, an organization will set up parallel career tracks to provide employees with opportunities for advancement without entertaining the thought of becoming a manager. This being the case at Google, an engineer is thus able to receive the same rewards and titles as a manager purely based on their technical achievements.

Generally, after a manager is promoted, they are usually removed from standard day-to-day operations, growing distant from technical issues and dulling their abilities. As you can see, the factors incorporated into job performance for managers at Google span far and wide and, as a result, are hard to quantify, so Neal and PiLab teammate Michelle Donovan identified two distinct and definitive measures:

  • Performance ratings.

  • Googlegeist results.

Yup, I know, and I will explain. Googlegeist results are "combined input from others in the company on what they thought of their manager’s performance, conduct and support." From there, managers were sorted into one of four quadrants (detailed below). By splitting up the data, Michelle and Neal separated the "best of the best" from the "worst of the worst." The team focused on the extremes to find the answer as to what they were doing differently.

According to Bock, “Out of more than a thousand managers, only 140 scored in the top 25 percent as individual performers and in Googlegeist. Even fewer, 67, were in the bottom 25 percent for both measures.” Essentially, there were twice as many “best of the best” managers than there were “worst of the worst.” Bock explains, “To be in the top 25 percent, your team needed to be only 86 percent positive about you, barely above the average of 84 percent. And the cutoff to be in the bottom quartile was 78 percent, still not far off average.” Maybe the engineers were on to something.

Looking deeper, Michelle and Neal separated the factors that added to the overall manager-happiness score, revealing noticeable differences. Analyzing the teams, Googlers with the "best" managers did 5 to 18 percent better on a dozen Googlegeist dimensions than those managed by the "worst." Michelle and Neal were confident, among other things, that:

  • Team member career decisions were made relatively, performance was fairly critiqued, and promotions were “well-deserved.”

  • Career objectives were attainable. The manager extended their role both as an advocate and a counselor.

  • Work was efficiently completed. Decisions were made swiftly, resources were allocated accordingly, and all perspectives were dutifully considered.

  • Hierarchies were extinguished. Teams relied on data over politics to make decisions while remaining transparent.

  • Team members were involved in decision-making and appropriately empowered to get things done.

  • They were mainly in control of their work-life balance.

Manager quality was the "single best predictor" of whether employees chose to stay or leave. Teams working for the best managers had a lower turnover, supporting the idea that “people don’t quit companies; they quit bad managers.”

To play devil's advocate, one could argue that, with almost 20,000 total employees in 2008, using a sample of only a few hundred of them is hard to discern whether or not outcomes were directly correlated with the efficiency of managers. The only way the team could be sure of their findings would be to shuffle team members and randomly reassign Googlers to different managers.

Even for Google, the idea of this sounds wild. But, as it turns out, Michelle and Neal did not have to consider rash decisions - Googlers did the shuffling for themselves. During the year, engineers can change project teams with different managers - however, there is no knowledge of who is the “best” and who is the “worst.” During the year, sixty-five Googlers moved from “best” to “worst,” and sixty-nine the other way from “worst” to “best.”

The results were staggering. Googlers who moved from “best” to “worst” scored significantly lower on thirty-four of forty-two Googlegeist items. Case closed.

Now sure enough that managers made a remarkable difference; they sought to figure out what the “best” and “worst” managers did differently.

“Proving that not all science requires a team of braniac researchers, we took a very simple approach to finding out what the best and worst managers did differently: We asked them.”

the Formula

It was interview time for several Google managers. Purposefully maintaining anonymity as to whether the interviewer was working with a good, bad, or mediocre manager (this technique is called “double-blind interviewing” as the interviewer is not biasing the interviewee, nor does the interviewee know which category they fall into themselves. Both are “blind” to the experimental condition), an interviewee's personality, and how it was applied to their character as manager was put under a microscope.

After sifting through new data, Michelle and Neal were able to identify eight common attributes shared by high-quality managers that were lacking from low-scoring managers:

Checklist Power

The discoveries within Project Oxygen to this point were a great start. However, it still did not provide us with a recipe for exemplary leadership. These eight findings may help principally. Still, they do not hold much more meaning outside of face value.

Indeed there are good habits that managers can develop, such as holding periodic 1:1 meetings with team members, but maintaining consistency frequently is the hardest part. Realizing this, Google sought to find a way to optimize good management - and this is where planes come in. When speaking to the power of checklists, there is no better place to turn than aviation. The book takes an excerpt from Atul Gawande’s article in The New Yorker, “The Checklist,” where he described Boeing’s introduction of a long-range bomber, the Model 299 (which eventually was officially named the B-17). Phenomenally designed, the aircraft’s payload could include five times as many bombs as initially requested by the Army. The aircraft could fly faster than previous generations of bombers and twice as far.

However, there were speed bumps at the beginning - specifically, it had a propensity to crash. Compared to other bombers at the time, the aircraft’s design was revolutionary (a.k.a. "complex"). In fact, on its maiden voyage, a more than experienced pilot had “forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls,” unfortunately killing two of the five crew members. The number of similar instances continued to rise. However, the Army was sure not to panic. They did not throw books of training material at everyone, nor did they hold emergency meetings. The answer was far more straightforward; they created checklists. Gawande concludes, “With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the B-17 a total of 1.8 million more miles without one accident, gaining a decisive air advantage in the Second World War, which enabled [the] devastating bombing campaign across Nazi Germany.”

The complex nature of management is similar to the complex nature of aviation. Combine the two, and I can see how a manager might think there is not enough room for both on their daily plate. We are already asked a lot, which only increases daily. To further act as a visionary for our team at the same time? It's too much!

Our jobs require reacting to a dynamic range of variables as part of our day-to-day responsibilities. Still, thankfully, in large part, we can simplify good management practices to a personal checklist to take the load off our daily stresses. As a result, the Project Oxygen team created a “system of reinforcing signals to improve the quality of management at Google.” The most notable of these is the "Upward Feedback Survey," asking teams to give feedback on their managers anonymously. As Bock states, “The survey itself is the checklist. If you perform every behavior on the list, you’ll be an amazing manager.”

Example UFS Feedback Questionnaire:
  1. My manager gives me actionable feedback that helps me improve my performance.

  2. My manager does not “micromanage” (i.e., get involved in details handled at other levels).

  3. My manager shows consideration for me as a person.

  4. My manager keeps the team focused on our priority results/deliverables.

  5. My manager regularly shares relevant information from their manager and senior leadership.

  6. My manager has had a meaningful discussion with me about my career development in the past six months.

  7. My manager communicates clear goals for our team.

  8. My manager has the technical expertise (e.g., coding in Tech, accounting in Finance) required to manage me effectively.

  9. I would recommend my manager to other Googlers.

A manager who does not find a way to invest time into their people is only that - a manager. Like it or not, it is our responsibility to evolve into leaders. Making the busy excuse is an attempted cop-out at assuming full managerial responsibility. Whether utilizing checklists or a different method is not covered, it is crucial to find how best to simplify the demands of managing so it becomes more automatic. A manager cannot consciously neglect retaining talent and, at the same time, expect to keep a highly-functioning organization. If you care for your people, other problems will take care of themselves.

Part of management is developing the next generation of leaders, plain and simple. If our team recognizes us as influential leaders, they already have a framework to work off of for the day they earn a managerial position. Inversely, poor management will scare off prospective leaders as a side effect. Gradually, they grow distraught and eventually are driven to other organizations.

Remain Introspective

My college coach always had a saying that resonated with me,

“it is never as good or as bad as it seems, it is always somewhere in between.”

Depending on who you are, obtaining feedback may present a difficult task. There will most likely be a stark difference between where we are ("I know I'm a good manager") and where we think we are ("My team thinks I could be a better manager"). Even for an accomplished individual like Laszlo Bock, he admits it was not easy. And, much to his fear, he had reason to be wary; his UFS survey results revealed a 77 percent favorable rating amongst his team. 77?! This was a tough pill to swallow. I mean, isn’t he supposed to be the expert? Yet, he even scored below the average of his team.

To give you an idea, managers in the top quartile scored 92 percent favorably and in the bottom quartile 72 percent. Investigating exactly where he went wrong, Bock discovered that he scored particularly low (50 percent) in “My manager helped me understand how my performance is evaluated.” Surprised but determined to right the ship, he explicitly committed to his team that he would do a better job to “give clearer feedback, spend more time traveling to meet the extended team, and generally work to be a better leader.” Able to finally diagnose the problem, Bock was able to drive his overall rating up to 90 percent favorable - including 100 percent favorability in giving feedback, and 100 percent of his team would recommend him as a manager (an increase from 80 percent previously).

Initially, you will fear feedback - it is human nature, but try to think of it more as an intimidating obstacle you must overcome.

Now, you might also be thinking that people will not give a manager honest ratings. Humans are wired to either be nice or game the system. If a manager cuts performance ratings, wouldn’t the employee take out their frustration negatively when responding in a UFS? Bock acknowledges that “there is a scrap of truth to this”; however, the effect is negligible. Mary Kate Stimmler, a member of PiLab in charge of studying why people make choices that increase the risk of failure, calculated the exact impact.

Stimmler calculated that, under a 41-point rating scale, a change in employees’ performance ratings of plus or minus 0.1 was correlated with a change in a manager’s UFS rating by 0.03 on a scale of 0 to 100. In non-math terminology, this indicates that people will tend to do the right thing.

Before I move on, I would like to point out that this is also not to be used as confirmation bias to explain away responsibility for poor survey results of your own. No excuses!


If we are to evolve into leaders, it has to start somewhere. Understand that no matter how complex your daily responsibilities are, you are still in charge of building a competent team that trusts and believes in your mission. Consider this a jumping-off point. I encourage people aspiring to become managers to read about different topics.

In my experience, I have been fortunate enough to see how other size airports choose to operate, which has directly benefited how I perform the competency portion of my job. Well, the same can be said for how we gather experience in leadership. Whether or not you hold a leadership position, gathering different perspectives is equally essential. Take Google's findings in Project Oxygen as a part of the puzzle, which you can benefit from, but do not stop there. Just as in seeing another airport or airline for yourself, a book like Work Rules! provides the opportunity to gather perspective on what it is like to work at Google, one of the best places to learn from.

Stay tuned for far more content like this from books I have read. If nothing else, I enjoyed this writing, so if you made it this far, I hope it means you did too. :)

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