Do You Know More Than Your Boss?

Teo Hee Lian says we should know more about our work than our bosses do.
Do You Know More Than Your Boss?

As a report writing trainer at the Civil Service College, I am often asked, “What must I include in my paper?” and “Why can’t my boss tell me exactly what she wants?”

Officers remember drafts that go through several, sometimes painful, revisions. Come end of the year, a third question is, “Why don’t they recognise my work?”

In school, when teachers and examiners read our work, they are also correcting and grading it. They, who know more about the subject than we do, know the answer before they read. There may be a model answer for comparison. At work, our readers want to know, “What happened in the past, and why?”, “What should we do now?”, or “Why are we thinking of this for the future?” They do not have the answer – until they read our paper. Even our boss may not have the answer – until she reads our paper.

She may have some idea of what the answer should be. But it is only after we have investigated the case, interviewed the people, or researched the issue, that she knows for sure what happened and why, or what should be done now, or what we should be preparing for next. Only then can our boss give clear directions.

There are also no model answers. So, writing papers at work is different.

First, we tell our readers something they need to know now, and probably did not know before. Therefore, unlike in school where we have a more knowledgeable teacher who checks our facts, now we must ensure our papers are accurate before sending them out.

Second, we help our readers understand and decide the next step. This includes showing them what the information means. How serious is it? What do we have to do now, and why? Should our policies or priorities change in future?

In whatever area we are directly responsible for, we must know more than our boss.

Third, we want to show why what we do matters. Why is our work worthy of recognition? Why is what we propose necessary and important? If we cannot do this, we risk our work being dismissed as merely routine. We may even end up always reacting to problems because we fail to persuade our readers to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

This means that in whatever area we are directly responsible for, we must know more than our boss.

This is quite reasonable. Let us take the school example again. A teacher knows the subjects she teaches and every student in her class well. She knows who needs a slower pace and who more challenging assignments, and how best to reach both students. The principal has other responsibilities; he leads the whole school and knows the student profile and all his staff well. But if he is a Science specialist, he does not have to know as much about teaching English as the English teacher does. He also need not know every student well, only the ones brought to his attention.

We are like the teacher. We are the experts and know more about our own work than our readers (including our bosses) do.

So when we write papers, we first give our readers Information they may not have known before but need now. Then we explain the Implications. Finally, we convince our readers of the Importance of our proposal and work.

This is how we can add value to our writing. This is also how we show the value of our work.

Teo Hee Lian is an associate trainer with the Civil Service College and former director of the Institute of Public Administration and Management.

    Sep 13, 2012
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