8 Habits of Effective Government Managers

Over the weekend, I was reading a New York Times piece that highlighted Google’s 8 Habits of Effective Members (aka their Quest to Build a Better Boss). It was a fascinating article that synthesized a lot of research Google’s People team had done, analyzing their own internal data on what makes an effective manager.

Government isn’t Google (no ping pong tables yet), but there’s a lot we can learn from these habits. That’s why I thought I would analyze these 8 Habits from Google and describe what they mean for government managers.


1. Be a good coach.

* Provide specific, constructive feedback, balancing negative and positive. I find in government sometimes we default to focus just on positive, but people need constructive criticism.

* Don’t wait for the end of year review. Have regular 1-on-1s to discuss existing problems and figure out some solutions.

2. Empower your team and don’t micro-manage.

* Balance giving freedom to your employees while still being available for advice.
* Make “stretch” assignments to help them tackle big problems – put them on the high stakes political project.

3. Express interest in employees’ success and well-being.

* Get to know your employees as people – with lives outside of work.
* Make new folks feel welcome. Help ease the transition – take them to lunch, check on them daily, grab a coffee.

4. Be productive and results-oriented

* Focus on what you want the team to achieve and how employees can help achieve it.
* Help the team prioritize work and make decisions to remove roadblocks. Are there certain steps in a normal process that can be skipped? Help move the project past a roadblock.

5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team

* Communication is two-way: both listen and share. I always say you should share at least 2x more than you think you should share. The moment you think you’ve overshared, share 2x more. People always want more.
* Hold all-hands meetings regularly. if you can’t fit your whole team in a room, at least send out notes from the meeting and have ability the to get questions answered. Be specific about meeting – and the team’s – goals.
* Encourage open dialogue and listen to the questions and concerns of your employees. Don’t brush off concerns – truly listen.

6. Help your employees with career development.

* Share training events (there are lots of free ones when budgets are tight) &and map networking opportunities to help your employees grow in their career.
* Understand where your employees want to go in their career and provide them experiences/skills to get there.

7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.

* Even amid political changes and budget issues, keep the team focused on goals and strategy
* Have team involved in setting and evolving the team’s vision, goals, and progress through workshops, office sites, and visual measurement of progress

8. Have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team

* Work side-by-side with you team when needed. For example, if you are a law enforcement agency, go out on a bust.
* Understand the specific challenges of the work. For example, if you manage people who perform acquisition tasks, understand acquisition. If you don’t understand, roll up your sleeves and learn at least the basics.

How many of these 8 habits are you using?

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Peter Sperry

I notice that somewhere along the way, they dropped the “don’t be a sissy: prologue from “be proactive and results oriented”. Google, and those who latch on to these habits, may be missing a major problem employees have with managers. Despite the soft, feel good ethos eminating from most leadership consultants, articles and books; there is a time when a leader need to show backbone in support of their team. Sometimes the customer is wrong, or the collegue is not pulling their weight or the vendor’s product/service does not measure up. Subordinates assigned to deal with these situations are not always going to be able to find a win/win, everyone is happy, group hug solution. Somertimes they will have to say no to the customer, admonish the colleague and contest the vendor’s invoice. These subordinates are depending on their manager to have their backs in difficult situations. When the manager reverses a subordinate’s action because the manager wants to minimize or avoid conflict; they send a strong signal to the entire team: “you are out there on your own.” If customers make unreasonable demands reulting in significant loss to the organization, let them have their way; because your manager will not back you up. If a colleague is not doing there job or failing to produce acceptable work, let it go because your manager will not hold them responsible. If a vendor’s deliverables are not up to par, just accept them because the manager is not willing to be unpleasant.

Examine almost any modern government or private sector organization and you will find innumerable examples of mid-level professionals spinning their wheels in quiet frustration, trying to meet excessive customer demands while remaining somewhere in sight of profitability or budget constraints; do their job and that of the various slackers they must work with and beg vendors to pretty please deliver something remotely resmbling the product/service contratacted. The most depressing aspect of their situation is not the difficulties of dealing with these chalanges but the knowledge that most of them could be resolved quickly and effectively if their organizational leadership, particularly their team manager, was not a sissy and would just once focus productivity and results rather than winning a popularity contest.


Good comment Peter. I’ve been watching Restaurant Impossible a lot lately. Kind of cool show where the host comes visit failing restaurants and fixes it up in a weekend. Besides the changes he makes to menu and decoration, he makes some really interesting management changes usually.

First is usually that making the manager act like manager. Be clear, be authorative, etc

Second is make sure the manager does manager work. Not actually helping out with team. But overseeing, double-checking work, managing the books, etc

Dave Bell

Nice posting. Thanks.

One thing that tends to bother me a bit is the use of the terms “boss”, “manager”, and “supervisor” when we should probably use “leader”. Most good bosses aren’t decent managers, most good manager aren’t worthy supervisors, and most good supervisors aren’t leaders at all. I think it says a lot that we have Executive Management Teams but no Executive Leadership Teams at all.

Jeffrey Levy

These are great points. I also agree with prior commenters that the manager has to stand up for the team. And even when someone on your team really has messed up, take the hit publicly and then discuss it privately with them, with a focus on improvement, not blame.

I sum it up as “take all responsibility, give away all credit.”

Linda K. Sanderson

These are great habits. I would add two more:

9. Instead of fearing and avoiding conflict, become good at conflict resolution – good communication (as described in #5) minimizes conflict, but conflict is inevitable. I actually suggest that some forms of conflict are desirable (we cannot all think alike, nor should we want a team where everyone thinks alike). Some forms of conflict can challenge people to learn and grow; it can also facilitate an environment of creativity in problem solving (a critical function of effective teams).

10. Hold your team AND yourself accountable.

Joseph E. Lett

Just want to make the distinction between a Leader and a Manager. A Manager is someone who manages what’s been given to them. In other words, the plan is previously laid out. As a matter of fact Webster’s defines it simply as someone who conducts business. This is a very vague description. Most government jobs are really managing positions. The goal is set, rules are laid out, and the Manager makes sure this is accomplished. However, a Leader is a visionary, they not only follow the set rules and goals of the organization, but they are able to establish better methods, new direction, change mindsets, and take the organization to new horizons. That’s a Leader, not a manager.