A personal user manual for working with me

Posted by Luke Thomas
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Almost six years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to the DISC personality framework when he started his company, Crystal (which I ended up working at for a few years). I was amazed at how it could accelerate meaningful discussion with coworkers and build a foundation of empathy. It was a simple, yet powerful framework that I believe everyone should learn.

While working at Crystal, I stumbled across an article in the New York Times where the author discussed the idea of a "user manual for working with me." You can hear the author talk about the concept in the video below:

As I read this article, it felt like a powerful idea and I become obsessed with it. In fact, we launched an app on ProductHunt based around this idea.

In the rest of this guide, I'm going to introduce you to personal user manuals for work, why they matter, and how to create your own.

The History of the Personal User Manual

The idea of the user manual for working with me was first mentioned in The Corner Office, a New York Times column by Adam Bryant. Ivar Kroghrud, the lead strategist at QuestBack explained how it worked.

A few key highlights below:

Q: Can you elaborate on why you developed the user’s manual?

"It made sense to me because I’ve always been struck by this sort of strange approach that people take, where they try the same approach with everybody they work with. But if you lead people for a while, you realize that it’s striking how different people are — if you use the exact same approach with two different people, you can get very different outcomes. So I tried to think of a way to shorten the learning curve when you build new teams and bring new people on board.

If you give them this “how to work with me” page on the first day, they get a different perspective on who you are and how you relate to people and how open you are. It’s much easier when they understand that these are the things I like and don’t like, and this is how I am."

In short, the user manual for working with me was developed as a "cheat code" of sorts for working better with people you don't know very well.

Benefits of the User Manual for Work

There are a variety of benefits to creating a personal user manual. I've mentioned a few of them below:

Reducing the surprises

When you work with someone you don't know very well, it can take a meaningful amount of time to get used to how they work. When these expectations, quirks, and tips are documented, it reduces the ambiguity and the surprises.

Creates vulnerability

If the user manual consists of the right questions (we'll share a template of questions you can use later in the post), it creates vulnerability and humility by default. Similar to personality tests, it's key to focus on the reality that each person is different and that's okay. The diversity of thought and perspective is what makes makes work better.

It can help you get to know your coworkers (especially when remote)

When you work remotely, it can be difficult to get to know your team and how they work. Before, when you were in the office, you could observe people and understand a bit more about their work style. Now, you don't have that luxury. A user manual for working with me can help remote teams remember that their coworkers are people, not robots or merely "words on a screen".

Questions to ask (and a template you can use)

The structure of the user manual matters as well as the questions you ask. You want to avoid coming across as "imposing your work style" on others. I recommend the following questions/prompts:

1.) One fun fact about me

Break the ice by sharing a quick fun fact. This helps establish a more friendly/fun tone to the rest of the user manual

2.) What gives me energy at work

In this section, outline what makes you energized at work. This is pretty self-explanatory. What you want to learn from this section is to understand the natural gravitational pull that people have and what work they naturally enjoy doing.

3.) What drains me at work

Do you hate spending all day in meetings? Do you need time for deep work? Explain what makes you lose motivation and energy at work.

4.) Preferred communication channels/style

In this section, outline your preferred communication channel and style. For example, is it okay if a coworker calls you out of the blue on your phone? Should they drop you a DM in Slack first? Here is where you can describe the ideal state. Whether or not people take you up on this is another story ;)

5.) How can someone earn a gold star with me:

This section sounds a little cheesy, but is quite helpful. Put simply, what's the easiest way to make someone's day? If I know someone is feeling down in the dumps, I might visit this section to see how to cheer them up.

6.) How I like to receive feedback:

This section is wildly important. Giving feedback is critical to improvement, but what if there was a way to map the delivery of your message to their preferred style? If you do this, the feedback has a better chance of landing and driving the improvement you seek.

7.) Things people might misunderstand about me:

Here is where you can share your quirks and things that people may have misunderstood about you in the past. For example, one of my quirks is that I like to debate. For some, this can feel confrontational, but the reality is that I'm only trying to think things through out-lout and I am rarely wedded to idea.

More prompts/questions for your user manual

I think the questions and prompts above are the most important ones, but here's a few more you may consider including:

  • What motivates me at work
  • Honest, unfiltered things about me
  • How I like to give feedback
  • An ideal day at work looks like...
  • My superpower is:
  • My achilles heel is:
  • I do my best work when...

Pro-tip: Pair the user manual with a personality test

One issue you will run into when creating a user manual is that it can be difficult to find the right words to say, even with the prompts above. People will end up repeating themselves and at times can use vague abstractions to describe who they are and how they like to work.

That's why I recommend pairing this exercise with a personality assessment. While personality assessments aren't a perfect representation of who someone is, I've seen them kickstart meaningful dialogue. These assessments provide the verbal "structure" that the user manual lacks and can struggle to tease out.

As for personality instruments, I recommend DISC or the Enneagram. I like DISC for work as the Enneagram is more geared towards personal relationships.

Pitfalls to avoid

Some people are critical of the idea of a user manual (read an example here) as it can be difficult for people to be self-aware of their flaws (true). Additionally, a manager giving an employee their user manual can create an "excuse" for bad behavior. After all, "I already told you about my flaws in my user manual." Finally, the author says:

You’re probably just wasting your time, because no one reads the docs anyway!

In short, there are some valid points, but the roadblocks can be easily overcome. For example:

  • if you want people to be more self-aware, you should pair the user manual with a personality test (as I mentioned earlier)
  • Creating a user manual should be a team exercise vs. something a manager only does and passes off to their team. You need to create a level playing field.
  • What people write down can oftentimes not be fully reflective of reality. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to help your team get to know you.
  • The user manual is most important when someone joins at the company. The document itself doesn't need to be referenced everyday.

To wrap up, you should be thoughtful about how you rollout this exercise with your team. I still believe the benefits far outweigh the cons.

User manual templates worth checking out

Here are a few user manuals you can refer to if you need inspiration!

Wrapping up: a user manual for work accelerates better relationships

To wrap up this post, a user manual helps you accelerate relationship building with your team and reduce ambiguity at work. You should be thoughtful about how you roll this out and approach it with a spirit of humility. Your team will thank you and you will work better, together.

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