How to write a user manual

All social interactions have unspoken norms. Period. Sharing an appetizer of four mozzarella sticks with your three friends? You eat only one. Riding the elevator with a group of people? Everyone faces the door. We mostly don’t say these norms aloud, and yet we know that not following them can have real social consequences.

At work, this becomes even more intense: unwritten rules are set by workers with tenure, influence, and power (not to mention how much we’ve had to re-negotiate these norms with the rise of remote work this past year). And perhaps even more so than socially, not following the unwritten norms at work can have serious consequences (just because you technically have unlimited PTO does not mean you should take off 252 days of the year).

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” wrote the philosopher Carl Jung. And if you manage a team or run a company, until you make the unspoken norms spoken, they’ll wreck havoc on your organization.

Why your team needs User Manuals

Thankfully there’s 45 minute exercise that can elevate and expose these norms while boosting your team’s productivity, collaboration, and overall job satisfaction. I borrowed this approach from Abby Falik and ask all my team members create their User Manuals that cover:

  • My work style 
  • What I value
  • What I don’t have patience for
  • How best to communicate with me
  • My typical schedule
  • How to help me
  • What people misunderstand about me

To help you construct your own User Manual, I’ve shared my own manual below.

My work style

Defining your work style, although it may feel abstract, is key to helping your teammates understand what motivates you and what you hope for you and your colleagues to get out of the work you’re doing.

What I value

Telling your colleagues what you value, simply put, gives them helpful insight into what matters most to you in your relationships and at work. Reading my values, for example, my co-workers will quickly learn how much presence matters and that I’d prefer most synchronous conversations to happen on the phone. (Oh yeah, and I hate Slack).

What I don’t have patience for

How to best communicate with me

Not knowing how or when to communicate with your co-workers can be exhausting (especially if you’re on the receiving end of all sorts of slacks, texts, and emails about the same topic).

Be clear about how you’d like to be communicated with upfront. Don’t want to get texts or calls unless it’s an emergency? Spell that out.

Want your direct reports to manage up better by keeping a running document of what they’ve worked on that week? Say so. People can only treat you how you’d like to be treated if you tell them.

Yup, that includes Slack emojis

Slack emojis can be widely interpreted – let your co-workers know what certain emojis mean to you and when to use them for quicker + clearer communication. Here’s how Slack uses emojis within their own company:

My typical schedule

This gives your co-workers an idea of the flow of your day. Of course, it’s subject to change, but if you’re busy surfing every morning, it’s nice to let your co-workers know they probably shouldn’t expect to get in touch during that time.

How to help me

I can’t emphasize this enough – we can’t expect our co-workers to be mind-readers. Tell people how you’d like to be helped. Are you bad at delegating (*raises hand again*)? Tell your people to watch out for that and gently call you out when they notice you gripping deliverables too tightly.

As a leader, you can’t be expected to have unshakeable confidence. Acknowledging your own struggles and insecurities can enable others to step up and help you.

What people misunderstand about me

Getting to know people takes time, and we can’t necessarily rush this process, but these disclaimers will help others get to know us a little better and quicker. What are the things that people might get wrong or misunderstand when working with you? Are you really a de-sensitized robot, or are you just batching all your work because you want to be present for your loved ones later?

It’s human to think that giving language to something will give it more power. But the truth is that when we put words to unspoken norms, we actually reclaim our own power, energy, and resources. Whether you’re fully remote or managing a team at a Fortune 500 company, everyone wins when you make unspoken norms spoken. You’ll deepen trust, eliminate unnecessary conflict and – most importantly – spend less time worrying about things outside of your control.

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