I’ve been reading Why should the boss listen to you by James Lukaszewski and it’s one of those books which is so obviously right that it shouldn’t need to exist. One of the very obvious things that the book says is:

you should be helpful to your boss

Simple, trivial and easily accomplished right? It’s not as easy as you think.

The second most useless form of help

When I was writing my PhD and I met another academic, we would talk shop and I would explain my research. More often than not, they would suggest a paper to read, a new avenue to explore or a new perspective on the issue. Of course, they were just trying to be helpful but the majority of the time, these conversations were the second most useless form of help I could have gotten.

I am willing to wager that there has not been a PhD in history who thought he did not have enough papers to read or that their project was too tightly scoped. Working on a PhD program is like trying to empty the ocean with a tablespoon, the list of potential work would occupy several hundred lifetimes. Given that you only have 4 – 10 years to complete a PhD, you are forced to prioritize and intelligently ignore everything that is not within your immediate scope.

Every PhD student has an internal priority list of papers they could feasibly read, papers they would love to read and papers they know to be useful but they have no hope of every getting around to reading. So when you propose a new paper that is only tangentially related to their topic, they’re just going to smile politely, let you email it to them and it’s going to slide to the very bottom of their to-do list. This is the second most useless form of help.

The workload of your boss is similar to a PhD student. There’s an infinite mound of work to be done and only so many hours in a day. The second most useless form of help in the workplace is pointing out trivial problems. The boss knows about all the trivial problems. And even if they don’t know, they don’t care about the trivial problems because there’s so many more important problems that need solving.

Coming up with problems feels like you’re helping, It feels like you’re doing something productive. You could be happily chugging along proposing problems all day long and then be completely blindsided with the knowledge that you’re just dead weight who must be let go.

The only way to determine if a problem is trivial is to know what it is the boss does on a day to day basis and how he orders his internal priority list. Only by knowing this can you get a sense of what he believes is feasibly accomplishable and anything below that line is considered a trivial problem. If your bosses job is a complete mystery to you, then you can never, by definition, rise above the second most useless group of workers.

The most useless form of help

Whenever you bring up a problem with your boss, you’re giving them two tasks to add to their list. The second of the tasks is to actually solve the problem. But before they can do this, they need to first figure out whether the problem should be solved. If you’re a person who clearly can only complain about trivial problems, that’s fine. They can quietly ignore you and shuffle you out of the team in the next department restructuring. But if you start dumping problems into their lap with no sense of how important it is to them, they’re now forced to spend time figuring out whether you’ve given them a legitimate problem or not. You’ve now added a task to their list which has bumped off a piece of actually useful work.

The truly useless people in an organization can be treated with benign neglect but if you’re the type of person who dumps unsolicited problems into the bosses lap with no sense of context or priority, then you’ve just given them the most useless form of help and you’ll come to be actively despised.

The only useful forms of help

There are only two really useful forms of help that you can perform for a boss. One is to highlight a problem which should be on the to-do list and the other is to solve a problem on the to-do list that they were planning to by doing it yourself. If you bring a problem to the boss, you need to bring the justification for why this isn’t just an important problem to you but also to them.  You need know what the boss believes to be important and show how this problem is more important than the least important thing he plans to do. If you solve a problem, you need to justify why that was the most important problem you could have been solving, again, not based on your own priorities but by the bosses priorities. Both of these things are impossible if you are wholly ignorant about what it is that your boss does all day long. It seems like such a simple thing but it’s surprising just how many people at all levels in an organization have no clue or curiosity about anything except their immediate job function.

The very most useful form of help is when you perform both types of help at once. You discover a problem and prove that it’s an important one worth solving but you’ve already figured out how to solve it before even approaching the boss. Such help is invaluable because it you’ve now just made the bosses life easier without them having to lift a finger. If you’re the type of person who can regularly do this, you become indispensable within an organization.


  1. Luke says:

    May 6th, 2009 at 11:52 am (#)

    Poorly written. This jumble of words doesn’t make enough sense. Yes, people hate complainers and problems. Most of this writing on this page is either naive or simply poorly thought out.

  2. Luke says:

    May 6th, 2009 at 3:52 am (#)

    Poorly written. This jumble of words doesn’t make enough sense. Yes, people hate complainers and problems. Most of this writing on this page is either naive or simply poorly thought out.

  3. 0425 – replacing hyperbole with precision | 1,000,000 words by @visakanv says:

    July 23rd, 2015 at 9:30 pm (#)

    […] Here I’m reminded of an article by Xianhang Zhang about “the most useless forms of help“. People already have thick reading lists, if you’re going to add something to it, it […]

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