Workplace Research
8 min read

11 essential traits of great managers

Lou Pardi

Lou Pardi

Strategy Director, Agency Marou

Finding, keeping and developing great people isn’t easy, but finding, keeping and developing great managers is even harder. 

What employees and employers expect of managers has changed drastically in recent times. With new styles of management required, we need to revisit what we expect of managers and how we develop them to be their best. 

In this article, we'll explore research on effective managers from Google, combined with our own research at Culture Amp to uncover the 11 essential traits of great managers. 

Contents

  1. A new breed of managers: Project Oxygen
  2. Eight common traits of high-scoring managers

  3. Manager effectiveness

  4. The 11 traits of great managers

  5. How to hire great managers
  6. Effective development for managers

A new breed of managers: Project Oxygen

Tech giant Google is a leader in the space of redefining the role of managers. They deliberately decrease the level of power and authority managers have over employees. “Managers serve the team,” says Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Managers aren’t focused on punishment or rewards but on helping clear blocks and inspiring their teams. 

Google genuinely believes that better decisions are made when multiple data points are collected and calibrated (and their research suggests they’re correct). Google’s Michelle Donovan, Director of People Operations, posed the question: What if everyone at Google had an amazing manager?

So Google embarked on a new project to understand what that would look like.

Project Oxygen was christened in line with a trend of borrowing names from the periodic table. Donovan thought it was apt, “Having a good manager is essential, like breathing. And if we make managers better, it would be like a breath of fresh air,” she said as quoted in the book Work Rules.

Google first identified the best and worst managers. They discovered that the teams who worked for the best managers were significantly more certain that:

  • Career decisions were made fairly. Performance was fairly assessed and promotions were well-deserved.
  • Their personal career objectives could be met, and their manager was a helpful advocate and counselor.
  • Work happened efficiently. Decisions were made quickly, resources were allocated well and diverse perspectives were considered.
  • Team members treated each other non-hierarchically and with respect, they relied on data rather than politics to make decisions and were transparent about their work and beliefs.
  • They were appropriately involved in decision-making and empowered to get things done.
  • They had the freedom to manage the balance between work and their personal lives.

They verified that managers had an impact on teams by tracking the performance of employees who switched between teams with good or bad managers. They consistently found that employees in teams with better managers were more satisfied.

In order to learn what good managers were doing that made them successful, Google conducted double blind interviews (where neither the interviewer nor the manager knew if the manager rated as good or bad). Managers were interviewed about their style using the same set of questions. From the interviews, Google identified eight common traits of high-scoring managers.

Eight common traits of high-scoring managers

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower the team and do not micromanage
  3. Express interest/concern for team members' success and personal well being
  4. Be very productive/results-orientated
  5. Be a good communicator - listen and share information
  6. Help the team with career development
  7. Have a clear vision/strategy for the team
  8. Have important technical skills that help advise the team

These give us a good idea of what it takes to be successful at Google – but are they the right traits for every organization?

Manager effectiveness

How Culture Amp identified the most common traits of successful managers

Project Oxygen identified the core behaviors of good managers at Google. You’ll see they’re not particularly surprising (Google was similarly underwhelmed by their findings). In looking at the traits of effective managers, our data and insights team at Culture Amp took things one step further. They conducted research with customers and reviewed current academic and practitioner research.

Three more behaviors were identified:

  1. A manager's ability to lead through change (emotional resilience)
  2. Treat employees fairly and encourage diversity (fair treatment)
  3. Focus on progress, not just results (overall effectiveness).

As a result, the team settled on the 11 traits of great managers.

The 11 traits of great managers

1. Caring

Managers who are caring take time to get to know the individuals in their team. They’re genuinely interested in people’s success and personal well-being and show this by regularly checking in with people on how they’re going both at work and outside work.

“I’d consider speaking with my manager if I was thinking about leaving.”

 

2. Coaching

Managers who are good coaches focus on developing the people they work with as well as getting the job done. They ensure they have regular one-on-one meetings with team members and encourage them to present solutions to problems, rather than solving problems for them.

“I regularly get feedback from my manager that I can put to use.”

 

3. Communicating

Managers who are great communicators are good listeners. They allow time for others to speak. They have a clear understanding of the organization’s vision and share it with the people in their team in a way that motivates them. They keep their team up-to-date on what’s happening in the organization.

“My manager communicates a vision that motivates me.”


4. Development

Managers who show a genuine interest in employees’ career development acknowledge improvement (not just deliverables). They take time to discuss people’s long-term career aspirations and help them understand potential career paths at and outside the organization.

“My manager frequently recognizes progress I make, not just results.”


5. Emotionally resilient

How a manager behaves in challenging circumstances can have a significant impact on their team. Managers who are emotionally resilient are aware of how their mood affects others. They remain calm and productive under pressure and cope well with change.

“My manager stays calm when we’re under the pump.”


6. Fair treatment

Managers who value fair treatment will allocate tasks and set schedules keeping in
mind people’s capacity and development goals. They acknowledge good work. They build a diverse and inclusive team and encourage diversity of thought.

“My manager makes sure that my ideas and work are attributed to me.”


7. Fostering innovation

Managers who foster innovation empower their teams to make decisions – and learn from failures and achievements. They don’t micromanage people. They encourage innovative ideas and approaches and help people to implement them.

“My manager helps me take my innovative ideas from concept to action.”


8. Overall manager effectiveness

Managers who are effective help people stay motivated to do their best work. They make the people they manage feel valued and supported. They feel they’re successful when the employees they manage are successful. People willingly recommend them as a good manager.

“My manager is effective and motivates me to do my best work.”


9. Results oriented

Managers who are results oriented ensure that performance standards are maintained. They work with team members to help remove blockers impeding tasks being completed and help the team get workable outcomes from team meetings.

“My manager helps me remove or work around things stopping me getting work done.”

 

10. Technical capability

Managers with the required technical capability add value to their teams. They can roll up their sleeves and work alongside the team when necessary. They empathize with the challenges the team face and have the necessary skills to help devise solutions.

“My manager has the technical know-how to help our team.”

 

11. Vision and goal setting

A manager ensures the vision and strategy of the organization is translated into an actionable vision and strategy for the team. They help people understand how their role contributes to the organization’s success.

“My manager helps us set a clear strategy
for achieving our goals.” 

How to hire great managers

It’s all very well to identify the traits we want to see in managers, but recruiting people with the traits we’re looking for can be another challenge entirely.

Google offers these tips for finding great managers:

  • Assess candidates objectively. Have standard interview questions and a way for interviewers to calibrate their assessments of candidates
  • Set a high bar for quality and keep looking until you find someone better than the people you already have – someone who adds something new
  • If possible, find your own candidates
  • Give candidates a reason to join

You may already have standard interview questions. If not, it’s worth taking the time to draw up a standard interview question sheet with follow up questions for interviewing managers.

For example:

  1. Tell me about a time your behavior had a positive impact on your team.
  2. Follow up with: What was your primary goal and why? How did your teammates respond?
  3. Tell me about a time when you effectively managed your team to achieve a goal. What did your approach look like?
  4. Follow up with: What were your targets and how did you meet them as an individual and as a team? How did you adapt your leadership approach for different individuals? What was your key takeaway from this situation?

Effective development for managers

Many thousands of dollars and hours are spent on employee training each year, but it’s not always easy to quantify its value. Before you start planning training for managers, it’s important to understand how your managers are doing already and where they need support. You may have results from an engagement survey of your organization or even their team – and that could flag leadership as a key driver, which is one data point.

To understand where managers excel and where they could improve, conducting a manager effectiveness survey will give you a clear baseline to work from. Team members can provide anonymous feedback to help managers understand how they’re doing. Managers can see where they’re excelling and what areas to focus on for improvement, and at an organizational level you can see what kind of additional training will have the most impact. You’ll also be able to see which managers are strongest in specific areas, so you can get their support to help with training.

manager effectiveness culture amp

An example of Culture Amp's Manager Effectiveness insight report

In addition to informing training programs, manager effectiveness surveys are also employed during times of rapid growth, when employee feedback indicates that managers lack core capabilities and when there is turnover of employees or managers.

The survey results will also inspire thinking about ways to develop managers outside of formal training. Once you’ve decided on areas to focus on, and taken some action to help develop managers, you can do another management survey to measure the impact.

“Going from being an individual contributor to a manager can be a big (and scary) leap, and managers need support – not just in the beginning, but as they grow into their own styles and refine their approach over time. Without feedback and guidance on what they can do to improve, managers are left to their own devices to figure things out, often at the expense of the people they manage. It’s getting easier to arm managers with feedback and coaching to boost their ongoing learning and development – and we see the rewards in more engaged managers, and teams, every day,” says Myra Cannon, People Scientist at Culture Amp.