Advice & News

September 16, 2020

How to Write Your ‘Personal User Manual’

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Working with others is complicated. No two people are alike. It's especially difficult when working remotely without nonverbal cues or established communication preferences. If only people could give each other "user manuals" about themselves. Our phones and computers come with instruction manuals, so why not us?

Our intuition and creativity are what makes us such valuable assets to our colleges and universities. But that also comes with a tradeoff: our impulses and idiosyncrasies make it difficult for colleagues to understand each other and work together efficiently and effectively.

Henry Ford is believed to have once asked "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?" As post-industrial knowledge workers, we are hired for our brains but we come attached with personalities, so we should at least attempt to make both less complicated, to benefit ourselves and others. There's no way to completely systematize how others should work with us, but defining it in writing sure does help.

A personal user manual is a one-page document that describes your style, preferences, and sensibilities, while also providing instructions to your coworkers for how you operate as a way to prevent communication breakdowns and misunderstandings.

This concept of writing your own personal user manual has been recommended by executive coaches for a number of years and adapted in several variations. Ben Dattner first wrote about it in a 2008 BusinessWeek article. In 2014, Adam Bryant, author of Quick and Nimble, wrote about how Ivar Kroghrud developed a user manual for his team when Kroghrud was the lead strategist of QuestBack.

While it's most often suggested for bosses to share their user manuals with their teams, it can also be used among coworkers, to prepare for a job interview, for personal relationships, or as a method of self-reflection and improvement that is not meant to be shared with others.

Whitney Birdwell, who operates a leadership coaching firm called WELLBIRD, taught a virtual class this summer for Stanford Continuing Studies called "Leadership and Relationships at Work: Develop a Personal User Guide."

"The area of interpersonal dynamics is complicated, or complex at best, so a user manual or a user guide is a way to say 'Here's who I am, here's what's important to me, and here's how I can be at my best and work well with you,'" Birdwell said. "At the same time, it's an opportunity to reciprocate that same information about the other person. The ultimate goal is better relationships and better results at work."

The following are some do's and don'ts and a template so that you can begin developing your own personal user manual:

DO write your personal user manual, but DON'T email it to your staff before having conversations about it.

The best scenario for deploying a personal user manual is for a newly hired manager to accelerate what Dattner called the "getting to know you" process, as it "greatly diminishes the possibility that misunderstandings will cause your new team to view you as a 'toxic' boss," he said, "but it can also defuse tensions between longtime leaders and their staffers."

"Have it be a conversation starter," Birdwell said. "That could happen in different formats. It could be a one-on-one conversation with the people you work with the most, but sending it by email to your entire staff is probably not the best approach."

DO write a personal user manual before a job interview, but DON'T share it or describe it as such with potential employers.

Dattner said that taking time to reflect on your style and preferences makes it easier to prepare for job interviews because you can better exhibit self-awareness and your leadership skills. But don't mention the user manual by name or share the document at the risk of forcing your needs upon the hiring committee.

"There has to be trust before you can really have a meaningful conversation around it," Birdwell said. "In a job interview, it's usually not the highest trust environment because you're just meeting people for the first time."

DO encourage your team to write personal user manuals, but DON'T mandate it.

"There has to be reciprocity; if you're just giving it to someone to say, 'OK, this is how I want you to work with me;' that's very one-sided," Birdwell said. "I think it needs to be up to the people, what they feel comfortable sharing."

If you're a manager, you can start by asking your subordinates to share how they prefer to communicate, or receive feedback, to show that you're supporting them in their ability to do their best work. Especially with remote work during the pandemic, too often subordinates feel obligated to answer emails immediately from their manager and this prevents them from concentrating on the work they were hired to do.

That said, managers shouldn't require their teams to share personal aspects of their user manual, such as values and styles, until trust and comfort is established.

DO consider writing a personal user manual if you're not a manager, but DON'T feel obligated to share it with your coworkers.

The idea of writing a personal user guide may sound great to you, but you will likely come across pretentious if you unsolicitedly send it to your manager, peers in your department, or people in other functional areas. You're essentially demanding, "This is how I'd like you to work with me, these are my strengths and weaknesses, and now it's up to you to adapt to my preferences."

"This is your user guide and you can choose if and when to share any of this," Birdwell said. "It's a framework to get to know yourself better so that you can develop and grow within teams. In the class I teach, we focus on building trust, and you do that by both listening and sharing vulnerability; they go hand-in-hand."

Writing Your Personal User Manual
By now you're ready to write your personal user manual. Birdwell has several approaches of varying depths that are tailored to her clients and students in her class. To get started, ask yourself the following questions developed by Aaron Hurst, founder of Taproot Foundation and Imperative, that he used to come up with his personal user manual, which was adapted from Dattner's original user manual shared in BusinessWeek.

  • What is your style? Describe your approach to work, what gives you energy, or how and when you experience a "flow" state?
  • When do you like people to approach you and how? You might need time to think about an idea or a problem before discussing it, so having someone email you with details to consider and scheduling time on your calendar might be more effective. For some, a quick phone call or riff session during a regular weekly meeting might be better.
  • What do you value? Companies and organizations list their values and so should individuals. These values can be a short list of words, such as "trust," "curiosity," and "joy," or an aphorism, anecdote, or phrase that epitomizes who you are.
  • How do you like people to communicate with you? This is not so much about phone calls, emails, texts, or meetings, as it is about how others present their ideas to you. Do you want options to choose from, a single recommendation, or to be asked questions to help you decide?
  • How do you make decisions? What kind of inputs do you consider before making a decision? Are they motivated by data, internal consensus, public perception, the bottom line, certain strategic goals, or some other metric or objective?
  • How can people help you? Describe the ideal system of giving and receiving feedback. Tell people how they can save you from yourself, if, say, you're a control freak and you need someone to take work off your plate.
  • What will you not tolerate in others? Also known as pet peeves, what will result in your pounding on the desk or something that will completely throw your workday into disarray?
After asking yourself these questions, summarize each response into 2-3 sentences on a one-page document and group the blurbs under five sections titled MY STYLE, VALUES, COMMUNICATING WITH ME, FEEDBACK, and HOW TO HELP ME.

Just as you and your career continue to evolve, your personal user manual should be a "living document," so be sure to update it yearly, monthly, or before each semester. And unlike the user manual for some electronic gadget, this is one you'll actually want to read more than once.