The one exercise everyone who works with people should do

Do you care about interpersonal harmony at work? Do you want to improve team collaboration? Are you tired of fumbling through the “getting to know each other” phase with a new team member? (Did you even realize you’ve been spending a lot of time and energy doing this?)

I’m pretty sure the answer to all of these questions is yes. The good news is, there’s an easy solution: a user manual to working with you.

Teamwork in action

As consultants, we’re always asking our clients to think about how customers experience their brand and offering. This exercise is similar, in that it forces you to think about how people experience working with you. This conversation allows teams to design accommodating communication channels, work styles and processes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I still can’t believe that most of us have wasted so much time in our professional lives trying to figure each other out. Sure, it doesn’t take long to learn the obvious or odd, like hallway conversations with Samantha aren’t productive, or Doug clearly hates the sound of chewing, so don’t ask him to lunch. But other things can take forever to figure out: Samantha is quietly and personally offended by lateness, or Doug can’t switch gears quickly and needs you to schedule time to get him at his best. As a result, you may sacrifice time and productivity (“I don’t know what’s going on, but I had to remind Doug about X again”) or cause unnecessary conflict (“Samantha seems cold—maybe she just doesn’t like me”). Worst-case scenario, these things never get discovered at all, leading to long-term problems.

This exercise does require vulnerability, which can be a lot to ask of people. I recommend approaching it by:

  1. Writing an honest and candid manual to you first. Spend some time reviewing it and pushing yourself to share things you may feel shy or embarrassed about.
  2. Share it with your team and let them know what you got out of the experience of writing it.
  3. Ask them to share theirs with you if they decide to write one. If you’re a manager, you can be more assertive and simply ask your reports to bring theirs to your next one-on-one.
  4. See how the exercise resonates with people before deciding the role these manuals will play in your organization. Our team found it super valuable and fun—today, links to each of our manuals live in our employee handbook so new hires can see them immediately and we can always reference them. I’ve worked with clients for whom the exercise was valuable mostly within the confines of the manager-report relationship or among smaller functional teams.

Below are some good questions you can answer in your manual, but feel free to modify them to suit your team. I’m also sharing my personal manual to me—please don’t use it for evil!

Thank you to Graham Siener, people manager extraordinaire, who shared this idea with me via this post from Brad Feld.

Questions to start with:

  • What are some honest, unfiltered things about you?
  • What drives you nuts?
  • What are your quirks?
  • How can people earn an extra gold star with you?
  • What qualities do you particularly value in people who work with you?
  • What are some things that people might misunderstand about you that you should clarify?
  • How do you coach people to do their best work and develop their talents?
  • What’s the best way to communicate with you?
  • What’s the best way to convince you to do something?
  • How do you like to give and get feedback?

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Juliann Babb