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Marketing & Biz

Want People to Understand How to Work With You? Write Them a Manual


I’m impatient with people who don’t quickly get to the point. The same goes for those who complain or blame others without offering solutions themselves. Oh, and how about when someone chews or eats on Zoom? Drives me nuts. On the other hand, I love employees who plan well, follow through, and are simply good teammates. I prefer to give and receive feedback face to face (by videoconference these days). My favorite stress-reliever? Walking with my dogs.

These and many more facts about what makes me tick are contained in a personal “owner’s manual” I’ve shared with the eight other senior executives at our enterprise software company. And those execs have produced the same documents for me and each other.

How-to guides are standard for cars, appliances, televisions, lawnmowers, and many other products. Humans are far more complicated than those things, so why shouldn’t we also come with sets of instructions about how best to work with each other?

That was the thinking behind a personal owner’s manual project that we recently rolled out across the leadership team and plan to expand company-wide. Because no two people are the same, such up-front transparency about individual work styles and preferences can only foster workplace harmony and productivity.

It seems futile to merely guess at how each of us likes to work, what motivates us, what annoys us. This is especially true now as the rise of remote work demands fresh approaches to keeping people connected and feeling personally invested in one another as they bounce from Zoom to Zoom meeting.

That said, the concept of personal owner’s manuals isn’t that new. In 1982, The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, argued for the importance of leaders taking stock of team members and tailoring management approaches to their unique qualities.

In a YouTube video posted in 2016, BetterCloud CEO David Politis described his vision of a “CEO Owner’s Manual.” As he put it, “When we go to the workplace every day, we somehow expect people to work with us– very complex, quirky, and (in my case) hard to work with, human beings– just from talking to us and trying to figure out who we are.” My assistant Beth told me about the video, and I found the concept brilliant.

I decided to run with it as a team-building exercise for our nine top executives spread around the world, who haven’t seen each other in person for over a year. We each answered the following questions:

  • What are the best ways to communicate with you? What are the worst ways?
  • What time of day do you work best?
  • Is there a time you prefer to be contacted? Not contacted?
  • What are some honest, unfiltered things about you?
  • What is the best way to convince you to do something?
  • How do you like to give feedback? How do you like to get feedback?
  • What drives you nuts or irritates you?
  • What are some things that people might understand about you that you should clarify?
  • How can people earn an extra gold star with you?
  • What are three things that bring you back to your center and make you feel good when you’re stressed?

The responses were really candid. I was surprised to see some flashes of vulnerability. I learned more about who my colleagues are as people and what makes them tick. I discovered that one team member, for example, sets aside exercise time in their calendar and prefers to keep these times locked other than for important external meetings as it makes a significant impact on how they approach their work.

Insights I shared ranged from fairly routine (“I prefer Slack for general messaging, text or phone for something urgent, and email for formal communication”) to sharing a concern that some people in the company may think I’m too cost-conscious. The owner’s manuals gave us permission to speak honestly about things that so often remain unspoken and yet, when aired, bring us closer together.

I’ve found the manuals to be a common-sense approach to helping people work better together, and I’d recommend that other organizations give them a try. They can help companies navigate the new remote workplace realities– and maybe even make someone think twice before eating in front of the CEO on a Zoom call.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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