Change Focus: Team Development 

Project Oxygen

Google’s Project Oxygen was an internal research project aimed at identifying the key behaviours of effective managers in the company.

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What is Google’s Project Oxygen?

Google’s Project Oxygen is a research-based initiative aimed at understanding and improving management practices within the company. Launched in 2008, the project was driven by Google’s People Operations department (now known as People + AI Research, or PAIR) and sought to identify the most important qualities that make a great manager at Google.

The project was born out of a belief that managers play a pivotal role in fostering employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. Therefore, by identifying and promoting the key behaviors exhibited by the best managers, Google could significantly enhance the overall performance of its teams and the company as a whole.

Through a series of in-depth analyses, Project Oxygen distilled a set of ten essential behaviours that define the most effective managers at Google. These behaviours, which are discussed in detail below, serve as a roadmap for managers seeking to improve their leadership skills and elevate their teams’ performance.

How were the characteristics developed?

The development of the ten Oxygen behaviours was a rigorous, data-driven process that involved the analysis of various data sources, including employee surveys, performance reviews, and nominations for the company’s Great Manager Award.

Initially, the research team identified a set of potential management behaviours by examining internal data, as well as academic research on effective management practices. Next, they conducted a comprehensive analysis of Google’s internal data to determine the extent to which these behaviours correlated with key performance metrics, such as employee satisfaction, retention, and team productivity.

Based on their findings, the research team created a list of eight core behaviours that were most strongly associated with high-performing managers at Google. This list was later expanded to ten behaviours in 2018, following a subsequent round of analysis that aimed to account for the increasing complexity of the company’s management roles.

The 10 Oxygen behaviours of Google’s best managers

1. Is a good coach

Being a good coach involves providing guidance, support, and encouragement to team members as they pursue their personal and professional goals. The best managers at Google take the time to understand the unique strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations of their direct reports, and tailor their coaching approach accordingly. This not only helps team members to grow and develop their skills, but also fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement within the team.

2. Empowers team and does not micromanage

Empowering team members means giving them the autonomy and authority to make decisions and take ownership of their work, while also providing the necessary support and resources for success. Google’s best managers avoid micromanaging their teams, as doing so can stifle innovation, creativity, and job satisfaction. Instead, they focus on setting clear expectations and providing guidance when needed, allowing their team members to take the lead in determining how best to achieve their objectives.

3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being

An inclusive team environment is one in which all individuals feel valued, respected, and supported, regardless of their background or personal characteristics. Google’s top managers demonstrate a genuine concern for the success and well-being of their team members, both professionally and personally. They work to create a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, and expressing concerns, thereby fostering open communication, collaboration, and innovation.

4. Is productive and results-oriented

Being productive and results-oriented means focusing on the achievement of specific, measurable goals and continuously seeking ways to improve team performance. Google’s best managers are able to strike a balance between driving results and maintaining a positive, supportive work environment. They set high standards for their teams and hold themselves accountable for delivering on their commitments, while also recognising and celebrating the achievements of their team members along the way.

5. Is a good communicator — listens and shares information

Effective communication is a cornerstone of successful management, and Google’s top managers excel in both listening to their team members and sharing information with them. By actively soliciting feedback, asking for input, and being open to new ideas, these managers create an environment where everyone feels heard and valued. They also prioritise transparency and keep their team members informed about company news, team objectives, and individual performance expectations, thus fostering trust and collaboration within the team.

6. Supports career development and discusses performance

Google’s best managers recognise the importance of career development in driving employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. They take an active interest in the career aspirations of their team members, and work with them to identify opportunities for growth and development within the company. These managers also provide regular, constructive feedback on performance, and engage in ongoing discussions with their direct reports about how they can improve and succeed in their roles.

7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team

Having a clear vision and strategy for the team is essential in ensuring alignment, focus, and a sense of purpose among team members. Google’s top managers are adept at articulating their vision for the team and defining the strategic objectives required to achieve it. They involve their team members in the development of this vision, fostering a sense of ownership and commitment to the team’s success.

8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team

While technical skills may not be the primary focus of a manager’s role, Google’s best managers possess a strong understanding of the core technologies, processes, and methodologies relevant to their team. This enables them to provide informed guidance and support to their team members, while also fostering credibility and trust within the team.

9. Collaborates across Google

Collaboration is a key driver of innovation and success at Google, and the company’s best managers actively seek opportunities to partner with other teams and individuals throughout the organisation. By leveraging the diverse skills, perspectives, and resources available across the company, these managers are able to drive greater impact and achieve more ambitious goals for their teams.

10. Is a strong decision maker

Strong decision-making involves the ability to make timely, well-informed choices that balance competing priorities and drive the team forward. Google’s top managers demonstrate a keen ability to gather and analyse information, consider various options, and make confident decisions that align with the team’s objectives and the company’s overall strategy.

Examples of how Project Oxygen can be used to improve team performance

Project Oxygen has served as a valuable tool for managers at Google and beyond, offering a clear, actionable framework for improving team performance. By adopting and implementing the ten Oxygen behaviors, managers can enhance their leadership skills, foster a more engaged and productive team, and ultimately drive greater success for their organisation.

For example, a manager seeking to improve team collaboration might focus on strengthening their communication skills, fostering an inclusive team environment, and actively encouraging cross-functional partnerships. Similarly, a manager looking to enhance team productivity might prioritise setting clear performance expectations, empowering team members, and providing regular feedback on performance.

In addition to its direct applications for individual managers, Project Oxygen has also informed the development of various management training programs and resources at Google. These include workshops, coaching sessions, and online tools designed to help managers build their skills in the ten Oxygen behaviours, and in turn, enhance the performance of their teams.

Download a free Project Oxygen template

Summary of Google’s Project Oxygen

In conclusion, Google’s Project Oxygen is a data-driven initiative that has identified ten essential behaviours exhibited by the company’s most effective managers. By focusing on these behaviours, managers can improve their leadership skills, foster more engaged and productive teams, and ultimately drive greater success for their organisation.

The ten Oxygen behaviours serve as a powerful blueprint for effective management, both within Google and beyond, offering valuable insights and guidance for managers across industries and organisational contexts. By embracing these behaviours and continually seeking opportunities for growth and development, managers can elevate their teams and drive meaningful, lasting impact on their organisation’s performance.

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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