Recently, Google announced it was laying off approximately 6% of its workforce (or 12,000 people).
It is quite clear this downsizing is looking for maximizing profitability for the shareholders. Big technology companies are always competing to hire the best talent out there and Google has continued growing rapidly (+22,000 in 2022). When you consider the median compensation of $300,000, it becomes clear that the numbers are staggering. The salary overheads alone for 2022 would amount to a remarkable $6.6 billion. Perhaps not so much if you know Google is making a $16 billion profit every single quarter.
However, there are no studies that show that downsizing a company this way leads to improvements in productivity. In fact, there is lots of evidence that they’ll lose out because people will be more averse to risk and have lower trust in their leadership. The problem is that employees who stay also get the message.
Of course, investors have generated enough pressure to make it happen, but it seems that this time, there is more than meets the eye…
Former Google employees have raised valid concerns regarding the ongoing layoffs. They think these layoffs are also about are about personal ambition and ineffective leadership. And because the company has opted for a straightforward approach to reducing headcount, they might be overlooking the real causes of these issues and harm themselves in the long run. What these former employees of Google are describing resonates deeply with many people. This is not breaking news for many employees who work in big corporations across the globe.
Maybe we all once believed that Google was impervious to this virus, but the truth is, when we examine the array of issues plaguing Google, it becomes evident that they are no different from any other organization. And everything comes down to one word: Culture, the common set of behaviors and underlying mindsets and beliefs that shape how people work and interact day to day.
Culture has always played a pivotal role in shaping an enterprise’s success and fostering employee engagement. While a positive and nurturing culture can be a catalyst for growth, certain cultural traits may serve as red flags, hinting at underlying issues that demand attention. Taking into account Google’s recent news, we want to delve into seven critical cultural traits that should raise a warning signal for employees.
By recognizing these warning signs early on, organizations can take proactive steps to cultivate a healthier, more productive, and thriving workplace environment. And if you’re applying for a new position in a new organization and you don’t anything about its culture, the early-on recognition of these traits can help you avoid future headaches!
1. No Mission
Having a clear mission is paramount nowadays.
The world is changing so fast (VUCA) that companies are constantly pushed to innovate and reinvent themselves to stay relevant. During this process, they introduce new products (sometimes even entirely new business models) to satisfy the needs of their customers and, at the same time, increase their market share.
But companies should be able to keep their identity at the same time as they are innovating. The MTP (Massive Transformation Purpose – a refined version of the mission statement) will act as a company’s North Star and will help you to innovate around your purpose. It will act as a cohesive element for all initiatives and innovations.
A company driven by a clear and compelling purpose becomes a magnet for top talent and cultivates a passionate following of devoted customers. These individuals are not only eager to purchase (even more) your products and services, but they also align themselves with your mission and yearn to be an integral part of it.
Apple is a clear example of it. Their MTP is to “Think differently” but there are many others.
But having your MTP carved in stone in the facade of your headquarters is one thing and committing to it is a completely different one. The latest is about living your values while the first approach is about sheer marketing.
The question is: Does anyone at Google come into work thinking about “organizing the world’s information”?
Apparently, very few Googlers come into work thinking with the mindset of serving customers or users. They usually serve some process (“I’m responsible for process change request”) or some technology (“I keep the integration system working”). Their dedication is often directed towards pleasing their managers or their VP or adhering to some policy that was established years ago but may no longer be relevant.
A clear recipe for disaster.
2. Live Your Values (Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk)
A significant issue arises when there is a huge disparity between the lofty corporate values displayed on beautiful posters throughout your offices and the actual behavior and practices demonstrated within your organization.
One of Google’s core values is “respect each other”. This a worthy value that most people will relate to, but there are two ways to interpret this:
- respect the unique strengths of each person and figure out how to get each person to maximize their potential and impact.
- translated into “find a way to include and agree with every person’s opinion” (a.k.a. don’t hurt me and I won’t hurt you).
Opting for the second choice would result in fostering a peacetime culture where nothing is worth fighting for, complacency settles in along with any desire to drive meaningful change. There would be no motivation to go the extra mile, and your attempts to do so would face skepticism from your peers and managers.
3. No Urgency
Google is usually perceived as an easy business where employees don’t have to face the same market forces as others. These are all the natural consequences of having a money-printing machine called “Google Ads” that has kept growing relentlessly every year, hiding all other sins.
Alphabet revenue drill-down (source)
Inevitably, this leads to complacency among senior leaders, who could prioritize their personal agendas over the interests of users, the business, and employees. And make no mistake, these behaviors cascade down to every level of the organization, to every employee. This also happens in many big corporations, governments, or companies that play in regulated sectors where their revenue is quite stable and guaranteed (at least until they become disrupted, and therefore, become obsolete in their business models).
If you believe that your current methods are flawless and represent the only way to approach things, you don’t wake up every day with a commitment to improve and exceed customer expectations. And rather sooner than later, this is a huge mistake for the survival of any company.
As Guy Kawasaki, the former Chief Evangelist for Apple, famously said…
“There are always two guys in a garage planning your disappearance. Either you go ahead of them, or they will achieve it.”
4. Risk-averse Culture Equals Bureaucracy
Organizations or individuals that overestimate negative risks and underestimate positive risks are likely to defend their current situation and resist any strategy that requires change. They are unlikely to pursue digital opportunities as a way of disrupting the market.
Rather, they focus on using new technology or methodologies only when it is in danger of losing its market position, and even then, they will only tend to deploy solutions that have been tested by other organizations before. Risk avoidance is given precedence in every decision-making process and policy.
This approach is totally logical when everything is going well, and the primary goal is to maintain stability and continue profiting from advertising revenue… AND your external environment doesn’t change.
But, as we already know, thanks to the fast-paced environment in today’s world (remember we are not in the XX century anymore), this approach would fade out any competitive advantages you have eventually.
Coming back to Google, if every small modification to a line of code carries risk, every product launch entails risk, every non-obvious decision involves risk, every dissatisfied employee poses a risk to your career, and even voicing disagreement with the management chain can be seen as a risk… it is quite clear that you will be forced to navigate through a labyrinth of reviews and approval for even the most minor change. And that requires a lot of resilience and determination, and most employees will simply give up.
Getting approval for your idea is more difficult than finding a baby in the Labyrinth (1986)?
How do we fix this? Remember that being risk-aware is not the same thing as being risk-averse.
You should not overreact to every possibility of a negative outcome and fear taking any risks (risk-averse). Instead, you should encourage yourself to consider in advance how you should react (risk-aware).
No organization can predict and prepare for every risk, but you should develop a good understanding of the most relevant risks and prepare accordingly. When risk aversion takes precedence over your culture, it will impact the value you give to your customers down the road, and it will kill any pursuit of new opportunities to adapt.
While the ideal approach when you want to advance to the senior level of the organization is to develop (yourself!) and grow your team organically, this takes time and is often hindered by potential reorganizations that can reset progress. Ambitious individuals are typically impatient.
One strategy is to initiate vanity projects and hire new employees to shape the organization to meet the desired appearance (curiously aligned with what HR expects to be the proper way to climb the corporate ladder). I have seen this more times than I can count.
Steve Jobs’s quote
Prioritizing superfluous metrics becomes more important than the actual value of the work that you deliver to the company, and ultimately to your customers. You can use your authority to manipulate the promotion process, allowing undeserving candidates to advance. Performance management issues are avoided to maintain headcount numbers for the next promotion opportunity. Confronting toxic behavior among peers is also sidestepped to ensure their support for promotion.
Sadly, these tactics are seemingly effective and ultimately lead to the desired career advancement of the individual to the detriment of the whole company.
6. Stop Learning
Within Google, there is a collective delusion that the company is exceptional, perpetuated by the belief that the company’s current practices are flawless and the only way to operate.
This delusion erodes humility and stifles the drive for continuous improvement. It seems propaganda is used both internally and externally to maintain this belief, and new employees are indoctrinated to conform to the status quo. However, behind the scenes, many individuals quietly acknowledge the overall inefficiency and incompetence that has taken hold (something that we didn’t know until now).
“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” – Charles Bukowski, poet
Not a long time ago, a skill was relevant for nearly 20 years. That number is now down to 5 years. That would mean that the current skill set of your workforce will be worth about half as much as it is today (Stephane Kasriel, former CEO of Upwork).
And if you are in an executive position and you are relying on the existing skills of your team to sustain the competitiveness of your organization, this idea may come as a rude shock. In 10 years, the capacity of your company to compete in an ever-changing marketplace could be just a quarter of what it is now.
The more you keep #learning, the more your business grows. The day you stop investing in your development is the day your business dies. Time slows for no one, and progress – especially in #technology – is constant.
Bill Joy, Co-Founder of Sun Microsystems, famously commented,
“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”
It’s true, no matter if you’re Google, Microsoft, Tesla, or OpenAI. In a world of millions of brilliant scientists, engineers, and programmers most of the world’s brilliant people statistically work for someone else.
7. No Innovation
Explain how Google was able to launch such a fantastic search engine and then launch a string of failed products, from G+ to Google Video to Stadia.
Google’s success stories (its ad-tech stack, its mobile platform, its collaborative office suite, its server-management tech, its video platform…) are all acquisitions.
Google’s acquisitions (source)
Besides search, Google’s only had two other in-house successes: they made a great Hotmail clone (Gmail), and they got more than a billion people to use Google Photos (but only by bundling it with Android, a mobile operating system they bought from someone else).
Google didn’t invent its way to glory — it bought its way there (and there is nothing wrong with that!).
Despite having a well-compensated and highly skilled workforce, there is a perception that there is almost no progress with each passing quarter or year. Employees find themselves trapped in a maze of a multitude of approval processes, launch procedures, legal reviews, performance evaluations, executive assessments, and an array of other obligations.
Although employees yearn for personal fulfillment and the opportunity to make a meaningful impact, the system discourages such ambitions and instead encourages them to conform and adhere to the “Googley” culture, where individuals are discouraged from challenging the status quo.
This dynamic would be transformed if the primary focus shifted toward generating value. By consistently asking the question: Who did I create value for today? would lead to a complete shift in behavior and provide the ideal condition for innovation to thrive.
This is a tipping point for Google. And for all companies that are falling behind if they show any of these traits.
OpenAI and Microsoft have created a lot of pressure on Google and have made them come out and give them the opportunity to dance again. But Google should have been the flagship of generative AI thanks to its vision and its current AI capabilities (computer power, algorithms and data). It seems that their problems were elsewhere, rooted in their culture. Maybe that was the reason why Google has been resting on its laurels for so long.
Now, it seems that they started to rush things up. And make no mistake, you can’t release a bunch of AI products in less than 2 months unless they were not ready before. I bet these new products were stuck in some distant corridor of the Google Maze waiting for some approvals.
Can Google (or any other company with these cultural traits) turn the table?
Well, if you take a look at the history records, most companies have failed this test. Either they gradually decline to a mere shadow of their former glory (IBM), or they spectacularly fail (e.g.: AT&T). On the flip side, Microsoft managed to turn things around, but it required exceptional leadership, a clear vision and several incentives to change people’s behavior and align them towards the new strategy (a story that I will share with you another time). Anyhow, this huge change of direction at Microsoft didn’t happen overnight.
Regarding Google’s case, I am confident that they will find their way out of this situation although I’m not sure when (or how) they will close the gap they have against their competitors. Time will tell.
Now you have a better understanding of how an organization’s daily behaviors and values influence companies’ competitive advantage (even corporations valued at over 1 trillion dollars are no exception!). Armed with this knowledge, these traits should serve as a warning sign when you want to know more about a company’s culture in the recruitment process 😃