The surprising thing Google learnt about its employees – and what it means for today’s students

Strauss, V. (2017), The surprising thing Google learnt about its employees – and what it means for today’s students. Retrieved from

STEM expertise is a highly desirable quality in students entering today’s workforce, with the widely acknowledged view that these are the skills required for successful employment. There is however, a growing understanding of the value in possessing certain types of behavioural and interpersonal attributes for success in the 21st century workforce. The importance of these personal skills in relation to STEM direct expertise is the topic of investigation in today’s musing.

The attached article by education writer Valerie Strauss describes how multinational technology giant Google tested their STEM-only hiring approach by analysing hiring, firing and employee performance data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. The results were surprising to Google; amongst the eight most important qualities identified in the most successful Google employees, STEM expertise was found to come in last place. The top seven characteristics of successful employees were identified as the following:

  • Being a good coach
  • Communicating and listening well
  • Possessing insights into others
  • Having empathy and showing support for colleagues
  • Being a good critical thinker and problem solver
  • Being able to make connections across complex ideas.

These findings were significant for Google as they led to a rethinking of their hiring practices where qualifications and skills referred to as “soft skills,” once seen to be less relevant are now being viewed in a new light. Further investigation from another Google appointed study (coincidentally named Project Aristotle) looked at data from the most productive teams at Google. Similar findings ensued where soft skills including empathy, emotional intelligence (EI) and emotional safety came out on top as markers of the most successful teams.

From an EI perspective, we already know of the value of skills such as accurate and authentic expression of emotion in communication, understanding other’s emotions and viewpoints (including empathy), employing helpful emotions to achieve desirable outcomes and using emotional information for balanced decision making. These skills have been found to be beneficial for mental health, developing quality relationships, adaptive coping styles, pro-social behaviours, leadership and sporting behaviours in addition to academic outcomes. It perhaps should not come as a surprise then that research findings such as these point to the extended benefits of EI beyond formal education in preparedness for the workforce, organisational productivity and overall success in employment.