Share the secret formula that helps you thrive at work
What drives you nuts? What are your secret superpowers? How do you like to get feedback? How can people earn a gold star with you? What do you wish your colleagues knew about you that they don’t already?
These are the kinds of questions you’ll find in the User to Manual to Me, an indispensable teamwork tool developed by former “chief ironing officer” and naval commander Ivar Kroghrud. There’s a user manual for almost everything else in the office, from the printer to the shelving units to the coffee maker. So why not a manual for beautiful weirdos and complex humans like you?
Kroghrud got the idea for creating a “user manual to himself” while working with colleagues in the Norwegian Navy. “That’s where I really learned about the importance of getting to know one another,” he explains in this New York Times interview.
“In the navy, you worked such long hours, under sometimes extreme conditions, so people didn’t have the energy to keep up any kind of facade. People got tired, and you saw them for who they were. That helped as a leader because you really got to know people, so you could lead them in an effective way.”
Beyond trial by fire
Kroghrud’s experiences in the navy lead him to an important insight: despite the leadership industry’s obsession with “best practices” and magical management techniques, the dirty secret is: there is no one- size-fits-all approach. “If you lead people for a while, you realize that it’s striking how different people are — if you use the exact same approach with two different people, you can get very different outcomes.”
The solution to that problem for most of us at work is simple: trial and error. We make guesses about each other, screw up, accidentally drive each other nuts, and then slowly learn and adapt over time. Kroghrud’s question was: how might we shorten that learning curve when building new teams or bringing new people on board?
“The worst way of doing it — which is, regrettably, the normal way — is that people just go into a new team and start working on the task at hand, and then spend so much time battling different personalities without really being aware of it.”
His solution was to share information about his own quirks, strengths, and weaknesses up front, instead of leaving it to others to guess or learn over time.
“The typical way of working with people is that you don’t share this kind of information and you run into confrontations over time to understand their personalities,” Kroghrud argues. “So why not try to be up front and avoid a lot of the conflict?”
Nutrient-rich team-building that doesn’t suck
I’ve used the “User Manual to Me” as a powerful icebreaker at staff retreats, as a tool for leadership teams to reduce conflict and strengthen feedback practices, or to help onboard new staff members in ways that make them feel welcome and seen. As a “get to know you” exercise, colleagues appreciate the blend of practical and personal; it’s a nutrient-rich way to spend an hour together, versus the usual trust falls and team-building baloney. And it creates a lasting artifact that you can refer back to over time.
Mindset: helping things go right (versus just addressing conflict)
Just as importantly, the “User Manual to Me” practice has an equally powerful mindset behind it: playing to each others’ strengths, instead of just reacting to conflict or perceived weaknesses.
As thought leaders like the Arbinger Institute have pointed out, this mindset helps us avoid a common pitfall. In work and relationships, it’s too easy to get sucked into focusing on how to correct problems, instead of how to build off strengths. 75% of the real work (in your team, your parenting, or romantic relationships) is helping things go right, not just reacting when they go wrong. It’s a simple but powerful mental switch.
There’s more to be gained by focusing on people’s strengths than pushing them to improve their weaknesses.
“A key for me in terms of leadership is that there is much more to be gained by allowing people to focus on their strengths, rather than to keep pushing them to get better at what they’re not good at,” Kroghrud says. “If people can do what they’re best at most of the time, that’s a powerful way of working. That starts with knowing people.”
How to Get Started
Make a copy of this “User Manual to Me” template and fill it in for yourself. (Select “File” ➡ “Make a copy.”) Then share it with teammates and invite them to do the same. (The questions are adapted from Aaron Dignan’s excellent Brave New Work.)
Or: do it as a group exercise at your next team meeting or staff retreat. I like having colleagues interview each other, round robin / speed dating style, as a way to promote active listening and trust. Have people work in pairs to interview each other, with the listener writing down the others’ responses. Then transcribe everyone’s responses into a collective operating manual for the team.
Questions About You
- What inspires you to do this work?
- What are you good at? What are your superpowers?
- What career expertise do you bring? What helped prepare you to do this work?
- What drives you nuts?
- What are your quirks?
- How can people earn an extra gold star with you?
- What qualities do you particularly value in people who work with you?
- What are some things people might misunderstand about you that you’d like to clarify?
Questions About How You Relate to Others
- 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 to do something?
- How do you like to give feedback?
- How do you like to get feedback?
- Anything else you want to add?