Why is it so complicated for people to understand Google’s people success?

Google's Approach To People Is Logical

If you like this post or vaguely agree (or horribly disagree) with its ideas, feel free to share it. Share buttons are down at the bottom. 

It boggles my mind that people can’t understand Apple’s product success — in a word, it’s simplicity — and perhaps boggles my mind even more that people can’t understand Google’s people success. Everyone wants to rush in and say it has to do with free food, the ability to pay more (because Google has a nice little market cap), its primary Silicon Valley location, something about margins, something about Larry Page signing off on every hire, etc. Everyone has a theory. In reality, it’s very simple.

Here’s their head of People Operations (HR), Laszlo Bock — who might be quoted in business journalism more than anyone not named “Jobs” or “Bezos” — talking to Fast Company. (He’s up-selling his new book, Work Rules, which comes out soon.)

I’ve talked before about one crucial thing Google does that consistently makes it “a top place to work” — it trains its people. Now, this one is tied to money. Companies who aren’t flush generally don’t train (who can afford that?) and when companies take a hit financially, training is usually the first thing to go (no time for that). So here, you can say, “Well, Google trains more than most companies, but I mean, they can afford to.

On the next couple of points, though, it’s much harder to say that.

Here are the core principles:

  • Trust your people.
  • Hire people that are better than you.
  • Don’t confuse development with managing performance.

Here are a few other things they try to do:

  • Focus on the quality of the people
  • Give people freedom
  • Underpin people-related decisions with actual science and data

Alright. Stop and pause for a second, because this is about to blow your mind.

All of the above is actually just common sense. 

Here’s how.

Trust Your People

The basic tie that binds humanity and relationships together is, essentially, trust. (You could also argue for reciprocity, I suppose.) Yet in employer-employee relationships, we never operate from a base of trust. Rather, we operate from assumptions like, “Well, if someone is working from home, they’re probably messing around and not really working…” Stuff like that. Think about this: your job is about your results, right? Ultimately? So a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), where you could work 20 hours/week and go home so long as you were doing your job? That would appeal to you, no? It almost never works, and you know why? Companies treat employees like Pre-K students. Don’t do this and see what happens. People might surprise you.

Hire People Better Than You

Get over your own fears about incompetence and focus instead of building the best team you can. Try it. See what happens. Sure, maybe you hire someone who takes your job in 3-5 years. You know what? That can happen in the current hiring model too — even though by and large what happens is you hire crappy people because you’re not really thinking about the process as a whole.

Don’t Confuse Development With Managing Performance

Yep. And yep.

Focus On The Quality Of The People

Work is literally 90 percent about the relationships; the deliverables are just a thing at some level. If you cultivate the right relationships in the right ways, you’ll (a) like working there and (b) be successful. If you don’t, neither will happen. (Almost unquestionably.) There’s a stat in Fast Company that out of the first 100 people hired at Google, most are still there — and 98 say the reason is “quality of the relationships.” Who wants to come to an office every day where you think the people are train wrecks or suck? Not me. Not most people. One important note here: when you “focus on the quality of the people,” that means you need to find different kinds of people. That’s a far richer experience.

Give People Freedom

Goes back to “trust your people,” above. Let people explore areas they care about and think could benefit the company. I work in marketing, but if you read this blog, I have a lot of ideas about HR. You know how hard it is in most companies for “a marketing guy” to make “an HR contribution?” It’s nearly impossible. Silos. But the thing is, when you limit people or don’t give them freedom … you miss out on good ideas that could move your company forward. Most people are a mix of different concepts and interests. Why put them in a specific box from the jump, right?

Underpin Decisions With Data

Basically, stop relying on gut. This is the whole idea with “Big Data:” come to conclusions based on what’s really happening. This ultimately will terrify most senior managers, might fall at the feet of human nature, and could actually make decision-making slower. That doesn’t mean you should avoid it. I’d actually focus on it. Your people will tell you what’s good, what’s bad, what’s working, what isn’t, etc. Just listen to them.

The Bigger Issue Here

I think when people see a company doing something right, even if the actions and behaviors leading to the “right thing” are inherently super logical, the person assumes: “Well, that’s too easy. There MUST be another explanation. I know. Their margins!”

No. It’s not always about money. Here’s what it’s about: treat adults like adults, and don’t always assume someone is slacking off if they’re not in front of you. Train them. Give them freedom. Listen to them. Use data. It’s not that complicated.

Bock himself even admits that:

Bock was about to explain that most of what Google does along these lines—like giving employees the freedom to carve out a percentage of their time to pursue whatever they want—doesn’t actually cost anything. Even in a time of flat wages, he was preparing to explain, you can focus on making your people happy; indeed, that when the economy is at its worst, treating people well matters most.



Ted Bauer


  1. Oh. My. Goodness.You are speaking my language! It’s like I could have written this article. Everything you said here is completely spot-on! If we start trusting people and treating them as adults and with respect, it’s amazing what we’ll receive in return. Thank you for sharing! Excellent!

Comments are closed.