I'm a big fan of Laszlo Bock, head of Google's people operations (a more adept way of saying he's the HR boss) for over 62,000 "Googlers," as they are affectionately known.

Bock wrote the magnificent Work Rules!, which has quickly become one of my go-to secret weapons on leadership and HR innovation, especially when it comes to inspiring bosses to design high-freedom and democratic work cultures.

Bock and I certainly agree on the unpopular notion that managers need to focus on sharing leadership, clearing roadblocks, and inspiring teams to succeed. In other words, they need to stop being managers.

This is the leadership style at the heart of Google's management philosophy. But it's not for everyone. Far from it, as you will see.

It works for Google, but does it work for others?

Sure, they're Google, but you're a 50-employee startup defining your culture and going through growing pains. Will it work for you too?

Let me tell you about a study referenced in Work Rules! Researchers studied the productivity of 308 companies over a twenty-two year span and concluded that performance improved only when these companies implemented people-strategies that empowered employees.

So far so good, right? But lets unpack what exactly "empowered" means in this sense.

An example I've written about in the past is to push decision-making authority away from managers and delegate it to individuals or teams. If your heart just skipped a beat, this doesn't mean handing the inmates the keys to the asylum.

It actually increases autonomy, provides more learning and growth opportunities, and allows teams to self-organize and make their own decisions. This fosters a leader-leader culture, rather than a follower-leader culture. It's empowering!

It's also the Google way.

In the research cited above, Bock writes that these factors "accounted for a 9 percent increase in value added per employee." In other words, only when companies made a commitment to give their people high-freedom did performance improve and productivity soar.

And it can for you too.

As crazy as this looks, take these decisions away from your managers.

Google goes pretty far to ensure the high-freedom culture they're known for by stripping away standard tools on which managers most rely. Here's a sample of the decisions that Google managers cannot make unilaterally, says Bock.

  • Whom to hire.
  • Whom to fire.
  • How someone's performance is rated.
  • How much of a salary's increase, bonus, or stock grant to give someone.
  • Who is selected to win an award for great management.
  • Whom to promote.
  • When code is of sufficient quality to be incorporated into their software code base.
  • The final design of a product and when to launch it.

Who makes these decisions then?

When the rubber meets the road, the shots are called by "a group of peers, a committee, or a dedicated, independent team."

Google managers are still human, so complaints do happen especially as it gets closer to promotion time as you can imagine. Many managers are dumbfounded that they can't unilaterally promote the people they think deserve it.

Bock clarifies:

The problem is that you and I might define our 'best people' differently. Or it might be possible that your worst person is better than my best person, in which case you should promote everyone, and I should promote on one. If you're solving for what is most fair across the entire organization, which in turn helps employees have greater trust in the company and makes rewards more meaningful, managers must give up this power and allow outcomes to be calibrated across groups.


Bock quotes former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, as having said: "Managers serve the team." If this philosophy poses as an unrealistic (or even crazy) prospect for managing your own teams, consider the source of that statement.

Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term servant leadership decades ago and was the first to proselytize its profound impact on companies and their bottom lines said this about the "best test" of such leaders:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

Google's high-freedom management principles are in line with this philosophy, now practiced around the world in many other successful companies including Chick-fil-A, Home Depot, UPS, Ritz Carlton, Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, Levy Restaurants, Toro Company, Herman Miller, ServiceMasters and Marriott International.

Perhaps yours is next?