Once upon a time in a past job, I received an important email in my inbox that alerted me to some distressing news.
Every six months, our company ran a wide-scale anonymous satisfaction survey that pretty much every single employee participated in. If your team was big enough (as mine was), you’d get your own breakout of the results. I always looked forward to diving into my team’s answers and getting a sense of how people were really feeling about their work, our team dynamic, and me—their manager.
As my eyes scanned the various questions, graphs, and answers, one point in particular stopped me in my tracks.
Under the question, “How often does your manager show care for you?” the chart displaying the responses from my team was a mass of red. I had to read it a few times to ensure I wasn’t misunderstanding: The majority of my team thought I didn’t show care for them?
This was hard to process because of course I cared about them. I cared a lot! I took pride in thinking of new ways to help my direct reports grow and thrive. I gave them challenging projects and frequent feedback because I wanted to see them succeed. And if there were ways in which I could help them—by hiring for their team, advocating for issues on their behalf, or pitching in on a tough project—I always showed up. How could they think that I didn’t care?
That night, I met with a colleague who was also a manager for dinner and poured my heart out to him.
“Julie,” he said, “Have you ever told your reports you care about them? Or asked them how they’d like to be cared for?”
I searched my memories and came up short.
“Everyone’s wired differently,” he said. “And even with the best intentions, we struggle to understand each other. Every manager and report has his or her own preferences for how they operate and how they want to be treated.”
He was absolutely right.
Even if you’re a good, experienced manager, and even if you show up to work every day with confidence, you’re still going to fail to connect with others from time to time. Some of this will be due to cultural differences, or contrasting personalities, or because we simply have different perspectives and life experiences. But the more I understood about what mattered to my reports, the better a manager I’d be. Similarly, the more my reports understood about how I worked, the fewer misunderstandings we’d have.
So I took his feedback and went to work on better understanding what “being cared for” meant to my reports. And in doing so, I realized I also needed to create a user manual—to myself.
Why Should You Create a User Manual?
When you buy a new camera, it comes with a user manual that teaches you about the specifics of the gadget—what each button means, how to select the appropriate lighting for the situation, how to access the images.
A user guide to your management style works in a similar way by creating clarity for how you work—what you value, what your blind spots or areas of growth are, and how people can build trust with you. It’s something you can give to every new report who joins your team so they know exactly how to work effectively with you. Most importantly, as you revisit and revise it over the course of your career, you get to see aspects of yourself that have changed as a result of your experience.
So how do you go about creating your own “manager manual”?
The first thing you have to understand is that you really need to know yourself. Filling one out requires you to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, what makes you tick, what you prefer others around you do, and what helps you perform at your peak.
The template I’ve included below includes the questions and answers from my own user manual. You can also download a clean copy with just the questions here by choosing File > Download as > whatever file type you’d like or File > Make a Copy. After I created it and shared it with my team, I encouraged them to do the same and share their working styles with me so I could learn how to best manage them. Feel free to modify it to best suit your needs, and continue to change and adapt it as you learn more about what makes your particular user manual more effective.
A User’s Guide to Working With [Your Name]
Why are you writing this user guide? What do you hope will be the result of writing and sharing it?
My Example: I’m writing this user guide to give you a better sense of me and my unique values, quirks, and growth areas so that we can develop the strongest relationship possible. I encourage you to do the same and share your user guide with me as well.
How I View Success
What does being good at your job mean to you? What are some of the values that underpin your understanding of success?
My Example: A manager’s job is to continually aim for better and better outcomes for their team. If my team is not happy or not producing good work, then I am not doing a good job. A manager’s three major levers for better outcomes are: people—hiring, coaching, and matching the right person with the right role; purpose—clarity on what success looks like; and process—clarity on how to best work together. Of these three levers, I believe people is the most important.
How I Communicate
What’s your communication style like? How have other people described it? What have you gotten feedback about in the past? How should others interpret what you do or say? Are there any aspects of communication that you are working on?
My Example: I am clearer in writing than in person. In person, I may talk through my thoughts out loud, which can sometimes feel rambly or sound confusing. If my point is not absolutely clear, please ask me to clarify or be precise with action items.
Things I Do That May Annoy You or Be Misunderstood
What are the causes of misunderstandings that you’ve had in the past? What are some things about your leadership or working style that other people criticize or misunderstand? What quirks or mannerisms might unintentionally annoy a different personality type?
My Example: Being a designer, I am very comfortable with ambiguity and living in the gray zone where there is potentially a better idea just around the corner. This can be annoying to people who want to nail down specifics or who want to commit to plans and then not change them.
What Gains and Loses My Trust
What makes you trust someone else? Conversely, what triggers you? What are the qualities you value that inspire your trust?
My Example: I appreciate people who make commitments and stick to them. If you are the overly optimistic type (I am one as well) who tends to overcommit to more than can be reasonably done, I expect you to come to recognize and improve on this over time, and to reset expectations as soon as you realize a commitment can’t be fulfilled. I lose trust in people who repeatedly fail to honor their commitments to do X by Y.
What do you love to do, and what are you good at? What can you help others with?
My Example: I’m good at staying calm, collected, and optimistic. I don't get overly emotional, and I do a good job of staying balanced. I like to look for the good in everyone and in every situation, and I believe things can be great. This makes me effective at pitching projects, giving presentations, and selling candidates.
My Growth Areas
What are your blind spots? What are you working on? What can others help you with?
My Example: I’d like to work on getting right to the point of what I’m saying rather than talking around an idea.
Additional Optional Sections to Consider in Your User Manual
My Expectations of My Direct Reports
What do you consider a stellar job for someone on your team? What do you consider a mediocre or bad job? What’s unique about your expectations that may differ from other managers?
How do you like to stay in sync with your reports or colleagues? What preferences do you have for one-on-one meetings? Would you prefer people to contact you via email, chat, or in-person? What’s your availability outside of working hours?
Giving and Receiving Feedback
What is your philosophy around feedback? What can people expect in receiving feedback from you? How would you prefer to receive feedback from your peers?
Everyone’s management journey is different and deeply personal, and I believe that great managers are made, not born. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you care enough to be reading this article, then you care enough to be a great boss. Creating this manual will help you better connect with your reports, so you can be the best boss—to them—that you can be.
Photo of manager talking to employee in conference room courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.
Julie Zhuo is one of Silicon Valley’s top product design executives. She leads the teams behind some of the world’s most popular mobile and web services used by billions of people every day. She writes about technology, design, and leadership on her popular blog The Year of the Looking Glass and in publications like The New York Times and Fast Company. She graduated with a computer science degree from Stanford University and lives with her husband and two children in California. Check out her book, The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Medium.More from this Author