Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Zappos Is Nixing Managers, But Are They Needed?

ARCHIVES
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh Flickr user nan palmero

A recent news story on how the online shoe company Zappos has eliminated the position of manager has raised again the question of whether management matters. A new Harvard Business Review article says “yes” and the data is there to prove it.

The Zappos story about eliminating traditional managers has an exciting air to it. The author Jena McGregor, says: “The idea is to replace the traditional corporate chain of command with a series of overlapping, self-governing ‘circles.’ In theory, this gives employees more of a voice in the way the company is run.”

Maybe this can work in a 1,500-person organization like Zappos. In fact, in the early years of Google, its co-founders experimented with a flat organization. According to David Garvin, author of a recent Harvard Business Review article about Google, the company’s engineers “long believed that management is more destructive than beneficial, a distraction from ‘real work’ and tangible, goal-directed tasks.” But now that Google is a 37,000-person company, things are different.

Google Analyzes Value of Managers. As Google grew, its founders realized that managers contribute in a variety of ways: “by communicating strategy, helping employees prioritize projects, facilitating collaboration, supporting career development, and ensuring that processes and systems align with company goals,” the article says.

But this realization did not come quickly. And Google still strives to give its staff room to innovate. The culture in the company prizes technical expertise, problem-solving and good ideas over formal authority and titles. In fact, Google oftentimes has 30 engineers reporting to a single manager by design -- to prevent micromanagement.

Google legendarily spends a great deal of effort handpicking its new technical hires, but these engineers often don’t value management. So Google set out to prove managers’ worth in 2006 by applying the same empirical rigor to its human resources processes that it traditionally applied to its business and marketing efforts.

Google launched Project Oxygen to see whether it could prove that managers don’t matter. “Luckily, we failed,” said project co-lead Neal Patel. He said members of the team surveyed employees and interviewed departing employees. In 2008, they found there was less turnover on teams with high-scoring managers. They also found a statistical connection between worker satisfaction and high-scoring managers. They concluded that managers mattered, and then set out to understand what Google’s best managers did.

Google’s Eight Behaviors of Good Managers. Project Oxygen identified eight behaviors shared by high-scoring managers, especially first- and second-level managers. None are surprising:

  • Is a good coach
  • Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • Expresses interest in, and concern for, team members’ success and personal well-being
  • Is productive and results-oriented
  • Is a good communicator -- listens and shares information
  • Helps with career development
  • Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team

Google offers training and feedback to low-scoring managers, but found the best approach is to have panels of highly rated managers tell their stories. “That way,” the author says, “employees get advice from colleagues they respect, not just from HR.”

Interestingly, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey also provides a great deal of insight, at an increasingly granular level, on workers’ perceptions of their managers. A recent report by the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzes the federal survey data, examined six agencies that improved their standings as the “best places to work.” The greatest driver for employee satisfaction? Effective leadership at all levels.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    Download
  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

    Download
  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

    Download
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    Download
  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.