Engineering Workplace Ecosystems

Corporate culture has long been considered elusive, intangible and a tough nut to crack. Some companies, often for unknown reasons, get it right while others get it horribly wrong. The truth is, creating and maintaining the right culture has always been a big mystery in the past.

It needn’t be any longer—not with the advanced technology platforms now at any organization’s disposal. Specifically, analytics can help provide a new set of quantitative feedback that can help identify employee values, beliefs and attitudes. Moreover, this data can be used to highlight the positive employee behaviors that companies want to amplify, as well as those they want to eliminate.

The key is to identify the most important characteristics that employees must have to be a strong fit within your teams and the overall work culture. This is called engineering an ecosystem, and it can play a huge role in everything from speeding up onboarding to increasing employee retention. After all, a healthy work culture plays a large part in determining how long employees will stay with organizations. Conversely, a not-so-healthy work culture can easily lead to an exodus of star employees.

Why Does Star Talent Leave?

According to widely held theories, talent departures of this kind are typically attributed to an employee’s inherent lack of passion for his or her work, a feeling of being unappreciated, unnecessary bureaucracy, poor development programs, a lack of strategic clarity from management, or all of the above.

Erika Andersen, author of Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass, 2012), believes it boils down to one thing. After spending more than 25 years consulting and coaching executives, she concludes, “Top talent leaves an organization when they’re badly managed, and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.” In other words, people don’t leave jobs. They leave managers.

Ineffective management is less likely to exist in an engineered ecosystem. Why? Because the very nature of a meritocratic workplace rejects traditional business hierarchies that enable ineffective management to rest on laurels of seniority.

Google’s Internal Management Experiment

Consider the internal management experiment conducted by Google in 2009. Entitled Project Oxygen, the Google initiative sought out employee sentiment on which traits are most important for successful managers to possess.

Google looked at a variety of data from over a hundred variables, analyzing everything from employee award nominations to words of praise and criticism on employee performance reviews and surveys. Over the course of the project, more than 10,000 data points and 400 pages of interview notes were collected. Google’s analysis confirmed that the biggest factor in ensuring employee performance and job satisfaction could be summed up in two words: Their manager. It also confirmed the eight traits/behaviors (see sidebar below) that were found to have the greatest impact on a manager’s performance.

The Data’s Surprising Revelation

Through the data, Google also discovered that the technical skills the company perceived as important actually ranked last in the employee list of traits for successful managers. The data showed that the company’s priorities for a manager’s skill set were fundamentally opposed to the type of culture it wanted to create.

As a result, Google changed its recruiting practices and set forth new guidelines for its existing managers. It was discovered, for example, that a common trend among poorly performing managers was an inconsistency in holding one-on-one meetings with their teams. So the company formalized these meetings to ensure that employees receive the proper amount of attention and feedback from their managers. It also instituted a managers’ coaching program to support its weaker managers. A year later, Google reported that 75% of managers were able to improve their performance levels significantly.

While the above example makes a compelling case for companies to use data to engineer an ecosystem, it should be noted that the data results are customized and specific to Google. And what may work for their people may not translate effectively for employees at other companies.

What is universal, however, is the fact that engineered ecosystems put their people first—even above their customers. They decode the data trail that follows their employees to better understand their specific needs and allow them to hone in on the single most important thing that all businesses need to be focused on: Attracting, retaining and engaging talent.

Sidebar: The Google Manager Traits List

When Google employees ranked top manager traits, they weren’t just giving feedback. Their data helped Google engineer its ecosystem, improve manager performance and contribute to a more rewarding corporate culture.

1. Be a good coach. Provide specific, constructive feedback that balances the negative and the positive. Have regular one-on-ones in which you present solutions to problems tailored to your employees’ specific strengths.

2. Empower your team—and don’t micromanage. Balance giving employees freedom with your availability to give advice. Make “stretch” assignments to help the team tackle big problems.

3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being. Get to know your employees as people who have lives outside of work. Make new employees feel welcome and help ease their transition.

4. Be productive and results-oriented. Focus on what employees want the team to achieve and how they can each help reach that goal. Help the team prioritize work and use seniority to remove roadblocks.

5. Be a good communicator—and listen to your team. Communication goes two ways: Both listen and share. Hold all-hands meetings and be straightforward about the messages and goals of the team. Help the team connect the dots. Encourage open dialogue, and listen to the issues and concerns of your employees.

6. Help your employees with career development.

7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team. Even in the midst of turmoil, keep the team focused on goals and strategy. Involve the team in setting and evolving its vision and making progress toward it.

8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team. Roll up your sleeves and conduct work side-by-side with the team when needed. Understand the specific challenges of the work.


  • Leerom Segal

    Leerom Segal is a pioneer of the “Decoded” movement and CEO of Klick, a $100M company with an award-winning culture that puts employees first and uses technology and data to fuel its 30% annual growth. He is also co-author of "The Decoded Company" and a winner of the “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” award from Ernst and Young.

    • Jay Goldman

      Jay Goldman is a Managing Director at Klick Health and leads Kick’s Sensei Labs team in addition to heading the company’s Innovation group. He is a co-author of the New York Times bestseller “The Decoded Company” and has been published in the “Harvard Business Review.”

      • Rahaf Harfoush is a co-author of "The Decoded Company." A digital strategist, she also wrote "Yes We Did: An Insider’s Look at How the Media Built the Obama Brand."


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