It is shocking how seldom the elements of great staff work are discussed in the modern workplace. Such discussions can go against the egalitarian tone of the times since the role of a reliable staff member is to support and not decide. Subordinate roles have such a bad image that some individuals afflicted by excessive sensitivity even refrain from using the word, "subordinate."
Those who do so miss the crucial role fulfilled by talented staff members who perform the heavy intellectual lifting so the ultimate decision maker can make the best possible decision or, at the very least, a practical one.
The ground rules of good staff work are simple but crucial:
- No decision should go to the decision maker unless he or she needs to make that decision. Keeping trivial and minor decisions at a lower level saves time and prevents distraction.
- Only excellent work should go to the decision maker. The boss should not have to play editor or proofreader. Will some bosses do so? Sure, but that does not mean the staff should engage in reverse delegation or turn in half-done work. All bosses have their quirks and any staff officer with basic smarts will commit those biases to memory so future work will be as change-proof as possible.
- Adverse information should never be omitted. The staff officer's role is to clarify, not to decide. This means surfacing the negatives as well as the positives.
- Err on the side of excessive coordination. It will save no time and will create enemies if a staff officer fails to obtain the ideas and positions of others who may have a substantive interest in the decision. Doing so will also jeopardize losing the trust of the decision maker.
- Recognize that the best can be the enemy of the good. The staff officer who seeks perfection will frequently find that the work's quality has been damaged by its tardiness. Timely decisions are needed. Go slowly on irreversible decisions and quickly on ones that can be easily reversed.
- Always present more than three options. Anyone can produce three options: Do nothing, do everything, and do a middle option that is favored by the staff. A good staff officer knows that some very creative options are often discovered when the list of options is increased. Savvy decision makers are righly suspicious of the old "three option sandwich."
- Give a recommended course of action. That's your job. It doesn't mean that the recommendation will be accepted but it gives the decision maker the advantage of seeing what is, in your judgment, the best option. Staff work that is inconclusive and neutral is incomplete. Have the courage to stand by your research.