Self Descriptions made Easy

I have a „Manual of Me“ in my professional e‑Mail signature for a while now. That describes when and how to reach me, and how I communicate or set tasks.

What it doesn’t do in depth or any detail is describing what I’m really good at or what I’m bad at.

And that is something that no team should ever ask from its members. Forcing people to write down or reveal what they are good and bad at is… bad. For multiple reasons:

One reason is that a lot of times, people don’t really know what their relevant weaknesses are. Or they don’t like to face them. Or they know them, face them internally, but won’t ever admit to them to their boss or coworkers. Because, let’s face it, there is a real risk that this will be used against them.

In those cases, you’ll end up with weaknesses as „too driven“, „too detail oriented“, „not taking breaks enough“, with the hopes that they’ll look good.

The other thing is that what I might perceive as a big weakness might actually be insignificant in the team dynamic. Who cares if I can’t do math in my head at the speed of thought, I have a calculator app and a spreadsheet available at all times anyway!

So instead, I recommend thinking and talking at length within a team about how one communicates, decides, and documents things. There are lots of differences on how this can happen, especially if you cross cultural borders by having a diverse multinational team. (see https://​erinmeyer​.com/​b​o​o​k​s​/​t​h​e​-​c​u​l​t​u​r​e​-​m​ap/)

Putting those differences and preferences out into the open is really useful.

Things that are good to explain about oneself

Get your folks to explain themselves in these terms:

  • what are their productive/waking hours? Are they night owls, early birds, or something in between?
  • Do they prefer face-to-face, synchronous, asynchronous or just written communication?
  • How do they like to separate documentation and decision-making?
  • What is their instinct when it comes to looking for information? Which systems do they use, who do they ask (if they ask someone at all)?
  • What are their notification etiquette? Are there times where you shouldn’t try to call them, or is that something you don’t need to worry about?
  • How do they want to get tasks assigned and reviewed, how do they do this themselves?
  • What are their preferred ways of addressing them? Honorific, nicknames, full names, pronouns, the works.

A tangent on leadership

I strongly advise that the team lead or most senior person of the group leads by example here. Don’t put the onus on the others to find out what is appropriate to share or tell, don’t let them guess what is necessary information. This is absolutely a managerial responsibility, to set the tone and expectations in a way that doesn’t discourage people, or makes them write in supplicant answers, in the hope to not look bad.

Communication can and should be trained, but it needs to start honest and open. If your team thinks they cannot be that way, you won’t get anywhere with them.

And power imbalances, even if you’re the most approachable manager of all, are still a thing. Subordinates will always have the next firing/hiring/promotion round in the back of their minds. Individual members of your team might thus not only worry about how they are perceived by you, but also by their peers, who could gleefully exploit any (perceived) weaknesses of others in order to get that promotion for themselves, or to prevent being axed when the inevitable downsizing comes.

Back to self descriptions

Self descriptions are useful. They make unspoken assumptions visible and clear, they highlight the differences between individuals in a way that makes them useful instead of a source of conflicts.

And they provide the basis on which to improve communication and collaboration within a group of people.

These self descriptions are not an end to themselves, they are a tool to figure out future collaboration and communication. Ideally, you encourage everyone to revisit their and other people manuals every now and then too.

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