Government Has a Lot to Learn from Google

The typical work environment in a federal agency no doubt has little in common with Google’s, but government can still learn something from Google’s practices, especially with regards to how managers lead (or fail to lead) employees in the federal workforce. The author explains how he believes this to be so.

The typical work environment in a federal agency no doubt has little in common with Google’s, especially if the 2013 movie, The Internship, was in any way accurate.  But government can still learn something from Google’s practices.

Google’s head of HR — the Senior Vice President, People Operations — Laszlo Bock has written a book, Work Rules!, that’s scheduled for release this month.  He’s been interviewed it seems on every news and talk show channel.  Articles on the book and the Google people management philosophy have appeared recently in Fortune, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.

The media coverage is solid evidence that business now recognizes the importance of the human resource function.  That point is worth repeating because it’s all too obvious that government has not.  When asked what makes Google special, Bock responds with, “It’s our people.”  Again no federal leader, based on what has transpired over the past several years, would agree with his response.

In a March article in Fortune, Bock states, “You either believe people are fundamentally good or you don’t. If you do believe they’re good, then as an entrepreneur, a team member, a team leader, a manager, or a CEO, you should act in a way consistent with your beliefs. If people are good, then they should be free. Too many organizations and managers operate as if, absent some enlightened diktat, people are too benighted to make sound decisions and innovate.”

His last sentence could describe the culture in too many federal offices.

He uses the words ‘free’ or ‘freedom’ frequently.  His point is consistent with a point made by many respondents to the survey conducted in March. Federal employees want managers to stop micromanaging.  The desire to be empowered was the most frequently stated response to the question about making their agency a better place to work.

He goes on to argue the way to make work better is through transparency, goal setting, frequent performance feedback and coaching, and a less-hierarchical work structure that empowers employees to solve problems for themselves while encouraging them to critique their bosses just as often as they critique themselves and each other.  The survey makes it very clear federal employees would welcome a work environment based on those practices.

To create an environment similar to Google’s, he lists 10 principles “to transform your team and your workplace.”  Several would be a stretch for government but he starts with two that are directly relevant:

  1. “Give your work meaning”“Work consumes at least one-third of your life and half your waking hours. It can and ought to be more than a means to an end. In too many environments, a job is just a paycheck. But as Wharton professor Adam Grant’s work demonstrated, even a small connection to the people who benefit from your work not only improves productivity but also makes people happier. And everyone wants his work to have purpose. Connect it to an idea or a value that transcends the day to day and that also honestly reflects what you are doing.”Comment:  Virtually all government work should have meaning.  That’s of course the reason many people choose government careers.  It would be strengthened by broadly and regularly communicating data related to an agency achievements.  In industry employees see data regularly showing progress in achieving goals.  Unfortunately the country has a number of elected officials who denigrate employee value and work efforts.
  2. “Trust your people”“If you believe human beings are fundamentally good, act like it. Be transparent and honest with your people, and give them a voice in how things work. And the only way for that to happen is if you give up a little bit of your authority, giving them space to grow into it. This may sound daunting, but in reality it’s not too risky. And if you are part of a team, make this plea to your boss: Give me a chance. Help me understand what your goals are, and let me figure out how to achieve them. Small steps like these create the trail to an ethos of ownership.”Comment:  This is supposition but my sense from many conversations is that there is far too little trust in government.  Leaders do not trust employees; employees do not trust leaders.  That does not contribute to a work environment where employees are willing to take risks.  Far too often there is an inexcusable chasm between leaders and the workforce.

It’s easy to say, “Well, Google is different.”  As a reflection of their people strategy they offer employees attractive perks like free breakfast, lunch and dinner, time off for both mother and father to bond with new babies, etc.  Maybe that 2013 movie was accurate.  It’s also easy to argue that the companies recognized as great places to work are generally in industries known for high pay.

However, that does not apply to Wegmans Food Markets, the # 7 company on the Fortune list.  Wegmans has been on the list for 18 years.  It was recently named by Consumers Report as the best grocery chain in the country.  I shop at one regularly; it is the best. – and I have never interacted with an employee who gave me the impression they did not like their job.  It’s not the money or the perquisites.  The local Wegmans is close to a Walmart and does far more business.  There is a decided difference in the demeanor of their respective employees.

Bock is quoted in the Wall Street Journal article as saying, “Honestly, work just sucks for too many people  He goes on to argue that’s not inevitable.  As Wegman’s proves, satisfied employees perform better.  It’s a win-win for everyone.  Government needs to do better.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who focuses on pay and performance. His career extends over 40 years and includes years managing consulting practices for two national firms. He recently became the editor of the journal Compensation and Benefits Review. He has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.