Personal User Manuals

Sharing guides to working with one another can lead to psychological safety

By Ken Norton

3 min read • Aug 26, 2022

Ken Norton

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[A photograph of NASA’s Apollo 11 flight manual]

I learned a lot over the years from Urs Hölzle, Google’s eighth employee and the company’s first real engineering leader. Many of you have heard me refer to his legendary “Escalation Manifesto.” But he was also known to Googlers for his “Guide to Urs,” a document describing his leadership philosophy and communication style. It was a sort of README for working with him. That was my first exposure to personal user manuals, and I’ve come across them many times in the years since. They seem to have only grown in popularity in the age of remote work.

Written well, they can build psychological safety by clarifying the author’s needs, motivations, behaviors, and quirks. They cover communication preferences, preferred work cadences, the best ways to give and receive feedback, and how decisions are made. User manuals can serve as a powerful tool for self-reflection and growth. They can welcome others to bring more of their whole person to work. The best ones act as a commitment from the conscious leader to the team. They say, “this is what I commit to you; here is where I may sometimes fall short; how I intend to improve; and how I want you to help hold me accountable.”

When done poorly—and I’ve seen many destructive examples—they merely reinforce a fixed “my way or the highway” leadership style that forces others to bend to the manager’s way of working rather than opening a two-way dialog. Ineffective reactive managers dump their user manuals on unsuspecting direct reports and shift all responsibility to others: “Here’s my API. It’s fragile, poorly documented, and brittle. There will be no bug fixes. Deal with it.”

If you write and share a user manual, I strongly encourage you to ask everyone on your team to do so. These guides shouldn’t merely be for managers. I’d argue that it’s more important for managers to read their direct reports’ user manuals than the other way around since leaders should adapt their style to the needs of each direct report. One leader I’ve worked with asks everyone on their team to write, share, and keep their manuals up to date in a central repository where everyone in the company can find them. During the early days of the pandemic, the company was intentional about revisiting the template and adding new questions about remote work, including an entire section about the family and personal responsibilities the employee is juggling off-screen and the reasons they might choose to turn their camera off. One optional section I loved: photos and fun details about the ‘guest stars’—pets, children, significant others—you might see in the background when on Zoom. This approach says, “we celebrate our differences, welcome all of you into this space, and pledge to do our best to meet each other where we are.”

Tom Geraghty, the author of the fantastic Psychological Safety Newsletter (which I highly recommend subscribing to), recently did a wrap-up of personal user manuals with links to lots of guides and examples. One, from Steph Smith, offers some suggestions for questions to cover:

  • Optimal work cadence/conditions? Medium, time of day, etc
  • What’s your ethos on meetings?
  • What do you need to do your best work?
  • What are your 1-3 core values in life?
  • What are the best/worst ways to communicate with you?
  • How do you signal to others that you need support?
  • What are ways that you can recenter when you’re stressed?
  • How do you like to give/receive feedback?
  • What’s the best way to get your buy-in?
  • What might others misunderstand about you?
  • What drives you nuts?
  • What is something that you are strangely good at?
  • What skill(s) are you actively working on right now?
  • What are you currently learning?

I want to suggest another question. When you started working with me, I asked you to fill out an onboarding questionnaire. Many of you have told me you enjoyed this process, although I suspect a few of you probably did not. In any case, your answers helped me to get to know you and adapt my coaching style to what works for you. All of the questions are powerful, but my favorite is the following:

  • Think of someone who knows you inside and out, like a spouse, co-founder, partner, sibling, or best friend. What advice would they give me on how to work with you? (Extra credit: you can actually ask them!)

I consistently learn remarkable things about my clients from that question, and my clients often learn about themselves too! Something about the perspective shift opens up new wisdom.

Have you experimented with personal user manuals? What have you learned?

Originally Published: August 26, 2022

This article was originally published to my private newsletter exclusively for executive coaching clients and alumni

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.