It can take months to pick up on a colleague’s work preferences and communication style. To remove this learning curve and help employees work together more effectively, you can encourage your employees to create a personal operating manual. Here’s a template to get you started.
Every workplace is made up of different personalities working side-by-side to tackle problems and create solutions. Every individual has their different quirks, habits and communication styles they bring to the workplace or computer screen each day.
And even if we don’t realise it, employees waste a lot of time trying to decode these behaviours and preferences, or become easily annoyed if they don’t understand their colleague’s approach. This is where a personal operating manual can prove to be a helpful resource.
“A personal operating manual is a short document outlining how you like to work, collaborate, communicate and receive feedback,” says Anne-Laure Le Cunff, psychology and neuroscience researcher and founder of Ness Labs, a neuroscience-based content and community platform.
A personal operating manual will shorten that inevitable learning curve that comes with developing team cohesion. By encouraging all your employees to be explicit about their work styles, preferences and even annoying habits, you can strengthen team collaboration faster.
Why do you need a personal operating manual?
“Personal operating manuals help foster psychological safety by helping team members know each other and the way they work. This can increase role clarity, peer support, positive leader relations, interdependence and lead to a celebration of learning within the team,” she says.
Psychological safety also has a potential innovation benefit.
“Psychological safety creates a virtuous circle where people are comfortable admitting their mistakes and learning from their failures. As a result, everyone openly shares their ideas and experiments, cultivating an innovative environment,” says Le Cunff.
In the best-case scenario, it could mean missing out on a revenue-generating idea. In the worst-case scenario, your company could end up overlooking a design or security flaw that could have long-term ramifications.
Personal operating manuals could help employees become more self-aware and authentic. It’s an opportunity to reflect on your habits, triggers or weaknesses, and even acknowledge less-than-ideal behaviours you’re working to improve.
What to include in a personal operating manual
The key to creating a great personal operating manual is specificity. No one will gain any insights about you from something vague like “I am a team player.” Instead, you could outline what your approach to teamwork could mean for your colleagues by writing “Before making a decision, I like to hear different perspectives and even dissent. Even if I don’t use your ideas or input, it helps me to reach a conclusion.”
But before you put pen to paper, start with some self-reflection.
In The New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum, Adam Bryant, a leadership expert shared some thought-starters.
- 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 value in people who work with you?
- What are some things 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 of something?
- How do you like to give and get feedback?
Once your employees have done some self-reflection, you can begin filling out your manual. Here are some sections Le Cunff recommends:
- An introduction: Start with the basics. Employees could include their roles, departments, working location and working hours.
- Something fun: Think of this as an icebreaker – employees could list their favourite books, podcasts or blogs, or a fun fact their colleagues might not know.
- Your ideal working environment: Identify when and where they work, and the factors that help them focus or learn.
- The best ways to communicate with you: Prefer a quick message over a meeting? This is where they’d add your preference. They could also include information about how they communicate with others or even some things people misunderstand about their communication style.
- How you like to receive feedback: Feedback is a necessary part of any job, so this is your opportunity for your employees to guide others on how it will land most effectively.
- How people can help you grow: What do you want to learn or achieve? You can also look at the inverse of this by outlining any specialities you can share with others.
However, there’s a fine line between authenticity and oversharing. Encourage employees to keep it as work-related as possible. The personal operating manual shouldn’t be an excuse for bad behaviour. For example, if someone includes that they are always late on their manual, they are essentially telling their employees to get used to it – which is not professional or helpful to getting work done. And while specificity is good, you should advise employees to avoid making it too long or rambling . This should be a resource that managers and team mates can reference quickly.
“Personal operating manuals help foster psychological safety by helping team members know each other and the way they work. This can increase role clarity, peer support, positive leader relations, interdependence and lead to a celebration of learning within the team.” – Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Psychology and Neuroscience researcher and founder of Ness Labs.
How can you create one and get employees to use them?
We’ve created an editable template that you can adapt for your workplace.
To socialise the document, you could host a session where you run through the manual and encourage people to ask questions to start the process of self-reflection. Personal operating manuals are also a great onboarding tool that will help new starters understand their team members better.
Once an employee has created their own manual, you can encourage employees to share the online document on your company’s shared workspace.
Another important piece of advice is to regularly revisit and update your manual regularly, says Le Cunff.
“But not too often, especially in larger teams where it would take lots of time for people to re-read everyone’s manual. Once a year after your annual review can be a good time to update,” says Le Cunff.
And finally, encourage your employees to have a little bit of fun with it! The manual is a helpful way for all team members, especially those working remotely, to understand who they’re collaborating with each day. Get a free personal operating manual template here
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