November 17, 2022

Every leader should have an operating manual. Here are 5 steps to build yours.

hero image for blog post

You likely spend about two-thirds of the work day communicating with other people. And yet sometimes it can feel like you don’t understand your team members at all – how they work, why they do things, how they make decisions.

Understanding your team members is critical to building good relationships with them. It can be the difference between, “Ugh, why aren’t they responding to my Slack message?!” and “I know Jess takes a walk every afternoon – I’ll hold off on pinging her until she’s back.”

To build better relationships, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends building your own, personal operating manual – and asking your team members to do it too.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Document who you are.

The first handful of questions in the operating manual are focused on you as an individual.

Don’t just fire off one answer. Take your time and provide three to five good responses to each question. Your first answer is rarely the best one, and the more responses you give, the closer you’ll get to the truth.

  • What do people get right about you?
  • What do people underappreciate or underestimate about you?
  • What are 3 essential things about you?

2. Document how you work with others.

The next set of questions is about how you work with others. Think about your previous workplace relationships. And keep in mind, you are an equal contributor to the way your relationships have been.

  • At a relationship’s best: What did you do or not do? What did they do or not do?
  • At a relationship’s most frustrating: What did you do or not do? What did they do or not do?
  • At a relationship’s most stressful: what pushed your buttons the most? How did you react? And what patterns of yours have irritated others?

3. List the nitty-gritty details of your working style.

An operating manual will be most useful to your teammates if they can get clear, concrete ideas for how you like to work. Take a look at what you learned about yourself in the previous sections, and note down what that means for your working preferences.

For example:

  • I will be hands-on until I trust you, and then hands-off. If I’m leaving you alone, it’s not because I’m not paying attention – I’m just happy to let you run with it.
  • I expect punctuality and I will get frustrated if you are consistently late.
  • I get most excited by big, creative ideas, and I will want at least one meeting a month with you to focus on those rather than status updates.
  • I will dedicate 5-10 minutes of our 1:1 to conversation because I want to get to know you, and I don’t see that as a waste of time. Let me know if it bothers you.

4. Keep yourself honest.

Before you move on, how do you know if your self-assessment was honest? After all, we’re not always truthful with ourselves (it’s a human thing).

For each answer, apply this triangulation test.

  • What degree of confidence do you have around your answer? High, medium, low?
  • What data (or concrete example) helps you know this answer is true?
  • Can a spouse-ish person (aka, someone close to you) verify this answer?

You’re now done with the “me” part of the process. But an operating manual only becomes truly useful when you share it with someone else – aka, the “we” part.

5. Have a real, face-to-face conversation with your team member about your manual.

Note: This does not mean, “Send your operating manual to your team as an FYI and never discuss it.” It means scheduling a meeting that’s entirely dedicated to discussing your operating manual, and accepting that it takes courage to talk about yourselves this way.

Goal 1: Develop mutual understanding.

Share your answers, then probe more deeply. Ask questions.

You could ask:

  • Why do you think that about yourself?
  • Why do you think people underestimate you in that area?
  • Why do you think you found that frustrating?

Goal 2: Give each other permission to keep talking about the relationship.

Don’t let the conversation end here. Brainstorm around addressing the things you learned, and plan to revisit the operating manual in three, six, and nine months.

How can you use the operating manual to make tangible changes? Well, for example:

If your team member says that people assume they’re not strategic because they stay quiet in meetings, ask, “What do you think would help you express your ideas more?” If your team member says their ‘essential’ quality is being active, ask, “How could we structure your work day to make you more active and therefore happier?”

Goal 3: Build the best possible working relationship.

This doesn’t have to mean the best working relationship of your life – just the best possible for you and your team member. If you have a moment in the future when you think, “Gah! Why are they doing that?”, revisit their operating manual and use it to address the point of friction.

You can end this conversation by asking:

  • What was most helpful or valuable for you?
  • What needs to be said that hasn’t been said?

Want to learn more about being a great leader? Sign up for The Complete Manager Sprint, or watch it on demand when you become a member.

Greg Shove
Section Staff