Googlegeist – An inconvenient truth

Googlegeist is a great initiative to gather feedback and seek the truth, but two questions remain: (a) can we trust the truth from this survey?; and (b) does this truth lead to meaningful resolutions?

In “Inside Google’s culture of relentless self-surveying”, Tim Ferholtz talks about one of the most famous surveys at Google – the “Googlegeist”. This company-wide survey is conducted annually, and, despite an estimated completion time of 30 minutes, the survey boosts an exceptionally high response rate of 88% or higher. The survey allows employees to evaluate issues they find most important, ranging from compensation and management to business conduct and strategic vision. The article highlights several key benefits of Googlegeist, such as helping the company focus on retaining top 5% of employees, improving the bottom 5% to improve, and assigning people the wrong roles the fit them the best. The then CEO, Eric Schmidt, is even quoted saying that the company decided to move a portion of bonus into base salary as a result of the feedback he had received from Googlegeist.

While actionable feedback is critical to the development and the culture of Google (or any company really for that matter), I see two potential issues with Googlegeist: (1) the source of the feedback, and (2) the actions that follow the feedback. Firstly, Googlegeist, like the vast majority of other 360-degree feedback systems, is subject to the risk of people gaming the system. In my experience, the ideal environment for 360-degree feedback to work is big, global consulting firms because of two factors: Firstly, there is a lot of data because consultants work with several different people on every project globally. Secondly, this data gets refreshed very frequently, as people are less likely to be staffed with the exact same team members across different clients in various regions. These two factors make it particularly challenging for people to game the system. The way Google is organized is the opposite: Googlers do not move from one team to another; managers, teams, and the reporting structure do not change every 3 months. Therefore, it is relatively easy for people, especially “smart people”, to start experimenting and manipulating the system to their own benefits (especially if they didn’t take LCA at HBS… or took it and got a “3” …like me). This survey brings to the surface many inconvenient truths, due to its anonymous and extensive nature, but how many of these truths are actually true, if it is so easy to game it?

Secondly, even if such inconvenient truths are true, how the company chooses to act upon them is questionable. What if the truth is too inconvenient to handle? A few examples come to mind: One recent Googlegeist survey suggests a major drop of faith in CEO Sundar Pinchai (74% votes for Pichai’s leadership, 18% points down from the 92% recorded previous year and the lowest in 6 years); yet, he remains the CEO, and little has changed in the way he leads the company. If anything, the one notable change that Pinchai has implemented is the removal of TGIF, a weekly company-wide meeting for employees to ask questions and air workplace issues. This move raises more concern over the increasing lack of transparency in Google when many inconvenient truths come out. Another example is Android Founder receiving a $90 million exit package, even after a credible sexual harassment complaint.

In brief, while Googlegeist is a great initiative to gather feedback and seek the truth, two questions remain: (a) can we trust the truth from this survey?; and (b) does this truth lead to meaningful resolutions?


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Student comments on Googlegeist – An inconvenient truth

  1. Haha, thanks for raising it Viet! As a person who has taken Googlegeist multiple times, here’s what I’d like to share…

    1) hmm.. not sure if I fully understand your concern around “gaming the system”, it’s in employees’ interest to provide genuine feedback about team / manager / leadership so it could be meaningful on an aggregate level. It’s also valuable to compare across organizations and years, for example: average team culture score in Android vs YouTube, and whether there has been any improvement / decline.

    2) you would be surprised how Google takes the Googlegeist results seriously. I had an ineffective manager and who got poor score across the team in once cycle, he was put on a PDP (personal development plan) for 6 months and was rotated to another individual contributor role after failing to improve. And another case is the “commute” from SF to South Bay. Google used to require everyone to work from Mountain View office (1.5h from SF) to maximize face time and people will waste 3-3.5 hours round trip. After several cycles of Googlegeist feedback, the leadership move towards more “remote culture” and developed many new offices in SF. In Sundar’s case, he might not be replaced immediately, but for sure there are initiatives that continue to track his performance and help him improve. And regarding Android founder Andy Rubin, not sure if anyone raised the concern in Googlegeist before filing the complaint…

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