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Book Review: Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock

Book Review: Work Rules by Laszlo Bock

Work Rules! is one of the most insightful books I have read about Organisational Development, which is probably one of the reasons why I read it already three times, this last being triggered by the recent read of The Passion Economy, which examines the latest work that Bock is doing at Humu. The way Laszlo Bock and his team at Google have been able to scientifically redefine the role of People should be Managed and developed, is a “Tipping Point” in the way we should intend the entire Human Resources profession. So I’ve decided to publish this new review, as I consider this book a real treasure for the way we should intend our work, and worth to be added in my Top List.

The main conclusion from this book is that the more you apply scientific models to study human performance, the more you understand the fact that it is the Human part of management that makes the difference. 

The Origins of the Book

The book has his origin in the work that Laszlo Bock has done at Google, creating that “People Operations” function that has become well admired across the world. But his starting point has been in some basic questions, such as why despite the proofs that “high-freedom” approaches in management was working, this was not the default people were working on.

Command-oriented, low-freedom management is common because it’s profitable, it requires less effort, and most managers are terrified of the alternative.

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

Most of Bock’s work covered in the book has been focused on uncovering what the elements that should challenge the above assumption are. Culture, Performance, Behaviors, all have been examined thanks also to the fact that for the first time a company (Google) was willing to invest real money and resources into this effort.

One of the first focus areas is Culture, and chapter 2 focuses on the significance of mission and values for a company like Google. But it is the link with Work Significance that marks the real jump. How many of us have taken the time to look for the deeper meaning in our work? It’s one of the critical questions that the book tries to answer. 

A second focus area is Recruiting, and Bock invests a lot in describing the ins and outs of the Google process and what it learnt from it. 

The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people. It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with.

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

Empowerment

One of the areas that Bock examines more is Empowerment. With one chapter entirely dedicated to this topic, it still keeps as a red thread across the entire book. He focuses a lot on the role of managers in ensuring that Empowerment is scaled across the whole organisation, thus calling it “Mass Empowerment”. And identifies four rules:

  • Eliminate Status Symbols
  • Make decisions based on data, not based on managers’ opinions
  • Find ways for people to shape their work and the company
  • Expect a lot from people

What managers miss is that every time they give up a little control, it creates a wonderful opportunity for their team to step up, while giving the manager herself more time for new challenges.

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

Empowerment is thus fully related to the way managers interpret their role. It’s not about dismantling hierarchies (although Google has been one of the companies that has challenged more the need for too many management levels), but it is about reorienting what the manager needs to do.

Performance Management

The other topic that is addressed widely across the boom is Performance Management. And starts with a very acute consideration.

The major problem with performance management systems today is that they have become substitutes for the vital act of actually managing people.

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

The rules that Bock identifies here are as follows:

  • Set Goals Correctly
  • Gather Peer Feedback (Wisdom of Crowds)
  • Use a calibration process to finalise ratings
  • Split rewards conversations from development conversations.

The goal-setting process and the entire system suggested is very much linked to the OKR implementation (as we have already seen in the Measure what Matters book review). The four rules above are also a reinterpretation of the real Best Practices in Performance Management and become an accurate guideline for every manager.

What’s interesting is then the chapter dedicated to the management of the Two Tails, i.e. what to do with the High and Low performers? It’s interesting to notice the attention put mainly on the Lower grades of the performance. Bock demonstrates what’s being called Compassionate Pragmatism

Poor performance is rarely because the person is incompetent or a bad person. It’s typically a result of a gap in skill (which is either fixable or not) or will (where the person is not motivated to do the work). In the latter case, it could be a personal issue or a useful sign that there is something bigger wrong with the team that needs to be addressed.

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

Helping manage poor performers, but also understanding that high performance is subjective and is often linked to specific circumstances, has pushed the need to focus (again) on the role of managers. This is the origin of Google’s fabulous Project Oxygen. It helped identify a list of attributes of successful managers.

The Eight Attributes of a Good Manager

  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-oriented.
  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.

This list has grown and the syntax has changed since its original publication. A fresher version can be found at this link. As you read it is all seems pretty obvious. But this is the first time that such a consistent list of attributes was derived from statistic research based on data. And this is how Bock reacted, too. He writes:

We now had a prescription for building great managers, but it was a list of, quite frankly, pretty dull, noncontroversial statements. To make it meaningful and, more important, something that would improve the performance of the company, we had to be more specific. For example, of course the best managers are good coaches!

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

This is one of the critical characteristics of the book: there is a significant intellectual honesty by the author in recognising that a lot of the findings are self-evident and unsurprising. What is interesting are the consequences of the results. A traditional HR approach to the Eight Attributes would have been to create a great learning programme for all managers, correct? No. 

The author goes to a substantial extent in his view of creating a Learning organisation, by pointing out (as we’ve seen) that is not the size of the training budget that makes the organisation learn. Rather the opposite: internalise training as much as possible, having your best people to teach others. And focus only on training that you can prove to change people’s behaviours

Conclusion: The Ten Work Rules

If we can summarise the book into a list, it would look like this:

  1. Give your work meaning.
  2. Trust your people.
  3. Hire only people who are better than you.
  4. Don’t confuse development with managing performance.
  5. Focus on the two tails.
  6. Be frugal and generous.
  7. Pay unfairly.
  8. Nudge.
  9. Manage the rising expectations.
  10. Enjoy! And then go back to Number 1 and start again.

Each of these rules (or lessons) although seemingly obvious, challenges a lot of the fundamental assumptions of much of the HR profession. It particularly challenges the “siloed” view of the world that many HR Specialists has. The answer is never in one process (training, compensation, hiring), but rather in a coherent approach to Development. 

What is central is the manager role. And Bock realizes it is not easy.

I realized that management … is phenomenally complex. It’s a lot to ask of any leader to be a product visionary or a financial genius or a marketing wizard as well as an inspiring manager. But if we could reduce good management to a checklist, we wouldn’t need to invest millions of dollars in training, or try to convince people why one style of leadership is better than another. We wouldn’t have to change who they were. We could just change how they behave.

Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!

And you? How did you find this book?

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Work Rules! in a Nutshell

Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead Book Cover
Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead Management, Human Resources John Murray Hardcover 416 Buy on Amazon

Goodreads Reviews

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