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Fostering Team Empathy - One User Manual At A Time

There has been so much talk about team building, team bonding and all things team. Yet, we all have been in situations where we felt annoyed and frustrated by someone at work. One-third of our life is spent at work. This amounts to:

The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime.

Source: Andrew Naber, Gettysburg College, 2007

It's easy to see how and why there is so much talk about team cohesiveness or developing a shared understanding in order for teams to work better. We find that in order to empathize with team members, one needs to understand them better and all the quirkiness that makes us unique individuals. This is where a User Manual comes in handy.

Origins of User Manuals

One might think that products come with user manuals, people don't. However, we all come with our own user manuals, the difference being that it's hidden and not as evident as products. It is not a new concept and there are many variations available now, however, I first heard about it in 2014 when I read about Ivar Kroghrud, co-founder of QuestBack, a software company. He had infamously developed a 1-pager that came to be called his "User Manual" outlining how people could work with him.

Since then, I have been tweaking and applying User Manuals with my teams with a lot of success. It does not solve all of the team dysfunctions; however it sets the foundation for empathy, trust and patience. It lets people adapt their working and communicating style with each other. The way I have explained to my teams is:

A User Manual in a strange way, humanizes you and your role in the team

What does a User Manual Look Like?

Like I said before, many variations exist. I like a 1 pager with the following sections:

Profile Picture:

  • A profile picture (non-work related that shows you in a different light)

  • It is super important that our team sees us as a person versus a role. We naturally empathize with another human being. It is challenging at times to have patience for say "Alex in Sales department who has not met his monthly quota recently"

How can people earn a ‘gold star’ with me?

  • This tells people what excites you and for your team or team member to understand what is important for you

  • It might have statements like "I welcome ideas at any time" OR "I appreciate when you have thought through a problem or solution in terms of total business impact"

How to communicate with me?

  • This tells your team about your communication style and how to get to you

  • This might have things such as "I love straight, direct communication" OR "Say what you are thinking, without beating around the bush"

What people misunderstand about me

This is one of the most critical sections as we do tend to jump to conclusions about people. Irrespective of countless phrases and ideologies, being aware of our own biases can be very challenging to the best of us. We all are different and our personalities and little or big quirks make us unique individuals.

I once had a team member who was known for morning grumpiness. Everyone knew that this individual would not reciprocate their "Good Morning, How's your day". So they stopped greeting her in the morning as they came into the office. It was only during our team exercise of doing User Manuals did we truly understand that she was deeply introverted and needed the morning time to recharge herself before getting ready to face a largely extroverted office. Thus hiding behind her screen with gigantic headphones helped her shield herself to face the storm of extroverts.

When Can User Manual Sessions Be Done?

A few examples of the scenarios where I have used User Manuals are - these are fun sessions that can take less than 30 minutes:

  • New team member onboarding

  • Team Bonding

  • Quarterly team offsite

  • New Job

  • Self-reflection exercise

  • New Manager

  • Improving toxic work relationships

  • Improving collaboration between different teams or team members

  • Big changes in a company might make people unsure of their future

  • Many more

Gotchas To Consider

Like with any tool, a User Manual is not a placebo for team dysfunctions or making your team starting to work great all of a sudden. It is important to understand and unpack the root causes, However, this tool can lay the foundations for empathy once the root cause has been determined. It helps in a cathartic way to heal spoken and unspoken actions. I have found and actually learnt the hard way to watch and at times probe a little at superficial statements that can be found in a user manual. These might look like:

  • I hate lies

  • I appreciate hard-working individuals


Psychological safety has been repeatedly proven as the key to innovative and happy teams. A user manual helps create this safety and trust. The better a team knows its members, the easier it gets for them to navigate conflict and feel comfortable critiquing or building upon one another’s ideas. It is something that can be extremely helpful in a remote team setting to start to know each other, build connection and feel less alone. Give it a try and let us know how it went!


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