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Work Rules!

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

- 7 lessons we should learn from Google

Culture, values, hiring the right people, motivating your employees, developing your employees, all these areas are hard to define and address within a company. To start of these processes it can be helpful to look how other companies have done it. So why not learn directly from the best? In this blog we will take a closer look at 7 essential HR lessons from Google set out in Laszlo Block’s book Work Rules! We will look at their successes and, maybe even more importantly, their failures. We will set apart these lessons and show you how they can help you into developing the right HR processes.

Lesson number 1: Vision, mission, transparency and voice are key to culture.

We keep repeating it and Laszlo confirms it, if you want to build a strong company culture, you need to start at the beginning. You need a clear vision, mission and connected values which describe why your company even exists. These need to be easy to identify with, ambitious and meaningful. The second aspect of their strong culture is their transparency and voice. Laszlo describes a corporate culture where everybody has access to everything in their internal systems from day one. Their CEO gives weekly Q&A sessions about what is going in in the company and they are even regularly running programs where employees can express complaints about internal policies, regulations and way of doing business (like the one in 2009 called ‘Bureaucracy Busters’).

Main takeaway: if you want to turn your departments with employees into teams with colleagues then you need a clear vision and mission, transparency and to let their voices be heard.

Lesson number 2: Hiring the best takes time, resources, (team) effort and high standards.

Within the recruitment department they’ve gone through many phases of what they perceived as the best way of hiring. First, they only admitted the candidates with the best qualifications, then they focussed more on mediocre candidates with better potential for development, in the end they are focussing now on a healthy mixture of both. Above all, they keep their standards high, which is key to the standards of their employees. Only 0,25% of all applicants gets the job. Laszlo compares that with the prestigious university of Harvard, which admits around 6,1% of all its applicants. Just so you understand how few candidates actually get the job. What’s more is that Google interviews new candidates in teams of four. These teams often consist of colleagues, managers, subordinates and one “cross functional interviewer” from an entire different department. He or she should ensure that the candidate is not solely being hired out of mere desperation.

Main takeaway: if you want to have the best teams, never lower your standard to speed up a hiring process. Hiring takes time, effort, resources and high standards. Start to improve your hiring process tomorrow by setting up hiring teams for function instead of ‘just a hiring manager and a recruiter’.

Lesson number 3: Promote autonomy and initiative by encouraging data usage and discouraging politics.

Google has a very flat internal hierarchical structure, in fact there are roughly four levels of hierarchy across all Google employees. Laszlo describes an internal culture where data trumps politics and promotion can only be made if the data shows that you are worthy of the promotion. So, for instance, you want more autonomy or you would like a promotion up the hierarchical ladder, then the data of your past performance must justify this. You must have shown in your work experience that you have a recorded history of making good decisions or leading teams/projects. Only then are you entitled to move up, the internal politics play less of a role. This also creates understanding amongst the rest of the employees why somebody is entitled to a better (paid) position within the company.

Main takeaway: hierarchical decisions need to made based upon transparent data. This has to be done in order to make the right decision, but also to gain support and understanding for the decision being made.

Lesson number 4: Study the top to improve the bottom.

Many companies look at their employees through a performance ranking system called the Bell Curve method (you can read more on that here). They use this system to decide who gets a bonus and who should be let go. Google uses this method too, but uses its results differently. They study their top performers and see what makes their performance so great. They use these results to create similar environments for their bottom performers in order to increase their performance. Project Oxygen showed that an exceptional manager is essential for a top performer. Engineers under an exceptional manager performed 5 to 18 times better than their peers. Google often evaluates the bottom 5% and offers them support to increase their performance.

Main takeaway: try and understand what makes your top performers so good and try and create similar environments for your bottom performers to improve them. Exceptional managers create top performers.

Lesson number 5: Stop looking for external teachers, use your own internal teachers.

Whenever companies feel the need to develop their employees, they often refer to external training agencies. They provide lengthy training sessions and workshops in all forms and ways. Even though this is a billion-dollar industry, the effects are often underwhelming. Laszlo notes that this is often due to ill design, lack of specific information, incorrect teachers or even that the trainings are not analysed for their effectiveness. Within Google they therefore mostly stopped with external development agencies, but are now looking inwards for qualified teachers. That means that if they need to increase sales, or address bugs faster, or find better candidates, they will look for their best sales person, bug squasher or recruiter to teach the rest of the department their tips and tricks. This reduces the training costs and brings their employees closer together in a common goal.

Main takeaway: if you want to develop your employees, look for internal teachers first before reaching out to external teachers.

Lesson number 6: Pay unequal based upon performance, award victories with experiences and encourage failures.

In a world where there are still big discrepancies in pay between gender and race, Google still chooses to pay different people in a similar position different salaries. So how do they justify this? Simple, their solution is to pay fair. If an employee out-performs their colleague by an extra 20%, then this employee will be often entitled to more benefits (in terms of stock options, bonusses and salaries). Although this in and of its own sounds fair, it does not mean that Google handles each situation as well as it ought to, which leads to the occasional salary scandal. Google often tries to increase happiness and performance as well, one of the ways of doing so is to hand out bonusses to well-performing employees. However, an internal survey showed that the employees did not necessarily became happier because if it. To address this Google started to award well-performing teams with experiences instead of individuals with money. This created a stronger sense of team and belonging amongst employees.

Finally, Google also tries to encourage all calculated risks. Google Wave in 2009 failed, but Google rewarded the team working on it anyway. Why? Because Google wants to encourage calculated risks and innovation. Even if the innovation might not turn out to be the next award-winning functionality this time, it could be just that the next time, so you need to keep your team motivated towards innovation.

Main takeaway(s): pay unequally based upon performance supported by data. Celebrate team performance instead of individual performance with experiences. Encourage calculated risks and innovation, even if the possibility exists that it could fail.

Lesson number 7: Face cultural problems, altering behaviour and the power of nudging.

Google has a company culture of transparency, as discussed under lesson number one, and even if that sounds great and has a lot of benefits, it can also backfire. One of the ways it backfires is that Google suffers one significant leak almost every year. When that happens Google announces in the entire company what has been leaked and what has happened to the employee that has caused the leak. Even though this might sounds devastating, Laszlo argues that the benefits of transparency outweigh these disadvantages. The same can be said for when Google tried to decrease some perks and benefits which was met by entitled behaviour such as scolding of and throwing food at cafeteria staff. Google published the entitled behaviour via surveys which led to staff-wide embarrassment and a drop in the level of entitlement. Google also had to deal with the fact that they wanted to change certain behaviours, such as keeping doors open for strangers, eating unhealthy food on lunchbreaks and leaving unlocked computers unattended. From their experiments it shows that restrictions and information about a better choice do not work. It is often met with anger and frustration. Their solution is to keep the freedom of choice, but nudge towards the right behaviour. For example, keep healthy and unhealthy food in the cafeteria, but keep the healthy food widely on display and easily to access while unhealthy food is more hidden and harder to access.

Main takeaway: the only way of facing cultural problems is head on and if you want to change behaviour then you should keep the freedom of choice but nudge towards the right choice.

In conclusion

The biggest insight of ‘Work Rules!’ is that data is key to many HR problems. It should be the key driver behind decision making, culture and many other aspects of HR, not only to do the right thing, but also to create understanding for why you do things. In this blog we have given you a very small taste of a must-read for any HR employee. We therefore strongly recommend that you read Laszlo’s full book, make your own analysis of what might work for your organisation and start making implementation plans to improve your business. Or you can get in touch with us and we can help you to with skipping the first two steps and directly move towards solutions to improve your organization.

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