Google's Project Oxygen: A Case-Study in Connection Culture




Google recently went public with the results of its Project Oxygen research to identify the practices of Google’s best technical managers. Their approach called for a study of 100 variables by data-mining performance reviews and internal surveys. Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice President for People Operations, summed up the findings when he said the most important factor they identified was "making that connection" between the manager and the employee. Google is right that the manager-employee connection is important, but it’s only part of the story.

That’s what I told Google’s leaders when I presented at the Googleplex in 2009 as part of the Leading@Google Series. In 2002, I first recognized that employees who gave their best efforts and aligned their behavior with organizational goals frequently used the word "connection" to describe why they were so fired up about their work. Since that time, my colleagues and I have been identifying the multiplicity of ways that great leaders in business, government, the social sector and sports connect with the people they lead to achieve sustainable superior performance. In 2007, we published our findings about connection in the book Fired Up or Burned Out.

After of nearly a decade of studying connection, I’ve come to believe it is one of the most powerful and yet least understood aspects of organizational performance. In the business context, the feeling of connection between management, employees and customers provides a competitive advantage. Unless the people who are part of a business feel a sense of connection—a bond which promotes trust, cooperation and esprit de corps—they will never reach their potential as individual employees, nor will the organization reach its potential.

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An organization with a high degree of connection breeds employees who are more engaged, more productive in their jobs, and less likely to leave the organization for a competitor. Organizations with greater connection also have employees who share more information with their colleagues, leading to better-informed decisions and new products, processes and entirely new businesses. Connection is what transforms a dog-eat-dog environment into a sled dog team that pulls together.

So what is connection anyway? When we interact with people, we generally feel that we connect with some and not with others. Phrases such as "we really connected" and "we just didn’t connect" are common in our daily conversations. Connection describes something intangible we sense in relationships.

We define connection as a bond based on shared identity, empathy and understanding that moves self-centered individuals toward group-centered membership. When connection is present, we feel energy, empathy, affirmation and are more open. When it is absent, we experience neutral or even negative feelings. Although we know what it’s like to feel connected on a personal level, few among us understand the effect connection has on us and on the organizations we work in.

Reflecting on my personal and professional experiences and on the research I’ve read and conducted made me realize three things:

  • First, connection is a powerful force that creates a positive bond between people based on both rational and emotional factors.
  • Second, connection contributes to bringing out the best in people—it energizes them, makes them more trusting and resilient to face life’s inevitable difficulties.
  • Third, connection can vary tremendously across organizations depending upon local culture and leadership.

What is it about connection that makes it so powerful? Without going too far into the psychology of connection, let me just summarize by saying simply that we are humans, not machines. We have emotions. We have hopes and dreams. We have a conscience. We have common deeply felt human needs: to be respected; to be recognized for our talents; to belong; to have autonomy or control over our work; to experience personal growth; to do work that we feel is worthwhile in a way that we feel is ethical. When we work in an environment that recognizes these realities of our human nature, we thrive. We feel more energetic, more optimistic, and more fully alive. When we work in an environment that fails to recognize this, it is damaging to our mental and physical health.

For those of you who see the value of connection, I want to show you how you can bring it out in the workplace by creating a "Connection Culture"—a culture with the necessary elements to meet our human needs. The core elements of a Connection Culture that meet these human needs are vision, value, and voice.

Vision

The first element of a Connection Culture is vision. Vision exists when everyone in an organization is motivated by the organization’s mission, united by its values, and proud of its reputation. When people share a purpose or set of beliefs they’re proud of, it unites and motivates them.

At Google, many employees connect with its mission to "organize the world’s information and make it accessible and usable." These Googlers understand that Google’s search engine will help change the world by making people smarter and better decision-makers. They are motivated by that prospect. Googlers are also united by its values that include "do no evil" and its "Googley" style, which incorporates the values of being authentic, genuine, fun, and curious. Being Googley ties in to Google’s passion for its modern, bright and colorful visual identity that is incorporated in everything from its website and written materials to its interior office design and building architecture. Google’s reputation connects with Googlers in several respects. The firm is well-known as one of the most innovative companies globally. It has a reputation for hiring smart people, and it is recognized for having one of the best workplaces in the world. All of this makes its talent feel proud to be associated with Google.

Value

The second element of a Connection Culture is that people are truly valued. My colleagues and I refer to this element in a culture simply as "value." It means that everyone in an organization understands the universal nature of people, appreciates the unique contribution of each person, and helps them achieve their potential. Value also includes protecting people from abuses such as workplace incivility, sexual misconduct or prejudice—actions that make people feel disconnected from their community because it failed to protect them.

At Google, research shows that employees feel valued if they connect with their manager. Google's Project Oxygen research picked up on some leadership behaviors that reflect value. The best technical managers help their employees with career development, take interest in employees’ lives and make time for one-on-one meetings with employees.

Voice

The third element of a Connection Culture is "voice." The element of voice exists when everyone in an organization participates in an open, honest and safe environment where people share their opinions in order to understand one another and seek the best ideas. When people’s ideas and opinions are sought and considered, it helps meet the human needs for respect, recognition and belonging. "Being in the loop," so to speak, makes people feel connected to their colleagues, just as being "out of the loop" makes people feel disconnected.

The CEO and founders of Google conduct "TGIF" meetings every Friday. Googlers vote on the topics they would like to see addressed in the TGIF. These meetings give employees a sense of voice that makes them feel connected. One of the variables that Project Oxygen identified was that the best technical managers ask questions and don’t dictate answers. This also reflects voice.

The bottom line is that we all need connection to thrive at work and in life. Here are a few suggestions about how to get started:

  • Everyone should understand what connection truly is and continuously strive to increase it among the people with whom they live and work.
  • Identify the vision that will unite and motivate everyone in your business. That vision may be becoming the best at what you do. It may be bringing something new to the world or conducting your business in a way that reflects your values. For example, Disney’s vision is to "make people happy." To jump start the process, get your most motivated people in a room and ask them when they have felt proud of the company. Listen to their stories and you’ll likely find a vision to rally around.
  • Get to know the personal stories of the people you live and work alongside. Learn what has made them happy and what has disappointed them. Find out what their professional and personal hopes are for the future. As people get to know one another, value will increase and connection will be strengthened.

Connection is the key. It makes a difference in families, in workplaces, in schools, in volunteer organizations, in communities and in nations. No one can thrive for long without it.