Everyone talks about building trust and communication between managers and employees, but how do you actually achieve it? I discovered one way in the most unlikely circumstances.
I recall the first day I met Nick. It was the morning that we’d all been dreading. His predecessor, Richard, had been with us for many years. Liked and respected by all, tears had been shed at his leaving party and there was general unease at meeting his replacement.
What if this new person was mean? Or changed everything for the worse? And even if he was good in the role, relationships would take time to understand and build. A lack of trust and certainty can put people off their game.
Getting to know you
Nick arrived with warm smiles and the offer of a coffee round. Then it happened – the part that has always stuck in my mind – he handed everyone a document. It was entitled “Working With Me: A User Manual.”
I’d never seen anything like it. Within the document, Nick detailed his managerial style, his strengths, weaknesses, and also what he expected of us.
I recall one woman, Jo, moaning about “extra homework” and two teenage team members rolling their eyes. However, it was the talk of the office that day and positive reactions from the rest of the team were hard to ignore.
Later, heading to the kitchen to make my final cup of coffee, I saw Jo, sat at her desk, fully engrossed in Nick’s manual. I also heard those teenagers in the break room, discussing what they would include in their own version of such a manual.
I started to think that Nick might be onto something.
Misunderstandings and wasted time
There are many things we try not to leave to trial and error – from learning the rules of a game to researching a hairstyle or planning a vacation. So why do we not do the same with people?
Often, we get to know our co-workers – their good and bad habits and traits – by overcoming misunderstandings and miscommunications. Sometimes even conflicts and confrontations.
This can have a profound impact on employee mental health. Likewise, people who feel frequently confused, aggravated, and like they’re always in an uphill struggle, will inevitably suffer from lower levels of productivity.
All of this can create a disconnect between managers and employees, especially in new relationships. With the best intentions in the world, misunderstandings still occur. People are hurt. Trust is broken.
And if you’re not careful, those initial cracks can become cavernous.
A manager user manual: Cutting to the chase
We’ve all heard the maxim that “people leave managers, not companies” and these professional relationships can be the hardest to get right.
Has a member of your team ever become frustrated after sending a manager chaser email after chaser email? Or have they suffered because they feel like a manager isn’t really listening?
Now imagine if every manager came with a user manual.
Would you have felt less close to your wits’ end if a manual had forewarned, “I’m easily distracted and not great at answering emails – face-to-face communication is best”?
A manager might feel wracked with guilt for being dismissive to an employee who approached them with a huge task list as they arrived at work. Perhaps less so if that employee had already read that their boss is “not a morning person, it’s best to approach after a cup of coffee.”
A manager user manual can help to break the ice and do away with second-guessing. It can also relieve tension that’s built up among teams, and help employees to feel comfortable approaching managers.
We’re all human, after all. Nick’s manual made our team feel more connected and motivated to contribute, share concerns, and ask questions.
The power of self-reflection
Acknowledging our weaknesses is the best way to overcome them, and to help everyone work to the best of their abilities.
People appreciate honesty and transparency in others because it builds trust – an integral ingredient of productive teams. According to American educator and businessman, Stephen R. Covey, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people.”
When a manager comes to write their personal manual, they will naturally reflect and self-evaluate. Above all, this growing self-awareness will make clear their values and reveal new goals to work towards. Also, it will help leaders track their own progress and growth, in a single, personalized document.
This, in turn, will help them to become better communicators and stronger leaders.
How to write a manager user manual
A Manager User Manual should give a succinct but colorful picture of who the person is, how they operate, and how to engage with them.
It should be personal and unique, and include some or all of the following sections, with a handful of bullet points in each:
1. Introduction. Why is the manual being written? What are the desired outcomes of sharing it? Managers should include some personal background information in this section.
2. My style. This can include leadership principles, quirks, and approaches to strategy. “I’m not a workaholic who doesn’t understand the importance of a work-life balance, but I will always try to make myself available if you need me.”
3. How I view success. In this section, managers should explain their vision. “I see the coaching element of my job as the most important – helping every member of the team to achieve their potential. So your happiness and success are the key to mine.”
4. My strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect. We can all think of a few examples of our strengths and weaknesses. Proper introspection can be revealing – and relevant. “I’m great at motivating others and maintaining a positive atmosphere. However, sometimes I can be a bit overbearing.”
5. What I expect of employees. Does a manager pride themselves on providing regular feedback to employees? If so, they could explain, “I want to see you making progress and being proactive in setting goals and letting me know how I can help you to reach them.”
6. What I value. For managers who appreciate honest, direct communication above all else, this is the chance to say so upfront. “Tell it to me straight. If I get something wrong, tell me. If I let something slide, call me on it. So don’t be shy about asking questions – it’ll help me to trust you.”
7. What I don’t appreciate. It should go beyond the obvious – no one likes bullies, dishonesty or intolerance. Nick spoke about how watching people lose motivation when faced with hurdles was a bugbear of his. He therefore wanted all of his employees to support each other and face challenges with drive.
8. My areas of growth. Nick confided in us that, as a creative person, one of his worst habits was occasionally getting so excited about an idea, and focusing so much on detail, that he lost sight of the overview. This meant that he would occasionally slip on timings. He was working on keeping to schedules and invited us to help him to do so.
9. How you can help me. This section will encourage managers to look deeper within themselves. In his manual, Nick explained how he always wants to say, “yes,” when people ask for help, and could find himself swamped. He encouraged our creativity to help him to maximize his time, by becoming more active and innovative problem-solvers.
10. What people may misunderstand about me. As excruciating as it can be, managers must take the time to think about past misunderstandings: how they felt, how others reacted, and alternative perspectives. “When I’m very focused, I can sound a bit blunt, which I know can be upsetting to some.” Sharing these findings can offer a sense of respite. It can provide employees with a thicker skin for such moments.
11. How best to communicate with me. Perhaps a manager doesn’t like communication outside of office hours or prefers someone to pick up the phone rather than sending too many emails. They should say so.
12. Your turn. Finally, at the end of the manual, invite feedback.
This shouldn’t be a one-off exercise; it’s an ongoing process and the manual should evolve with the manager.
How to implement user manuals in your organization
Imagine leading an organization where user manuals are the norm – perhaps for everyone, managers and team members alike.
You could introduce user manuals as part of the onboarding process for new employees. Or set aside time one afternoon for every employee to create their own manual, either individually or as part of a relaxed team-building exercise.
It would help to create an environment for growth, one where everyone can carve a clearer path in their development plan.
Even if your organization doesn’t want to implement the tool widely, a user manual is a worthy exercise to complete during personal time, it can be a humbling and cathartic process! Self-management is increasingly important and writing a user manual is an invaluable lesson in just that.
Writing mine, I realized how I can be overly self-critical at times but how a bit of praise can help me to stay motivated. I wrote about how I’m working on being able to step back and stop being such a perfectionist. Later, I even messaged Nick on LinkedIn to tell him what a rewarding and insightful process I found it to be.
It takes commitment, honesty and some bravery to complete. However, the rewards of richer communication, honest feedback, and improved performance make the time and effort more than worthwhile.