When I ask managers what they hate most about their jobs, writing and reading reports is usually on the top of their lists. Managers who have to write reports are often inadequately prepared: They were hired for expertise in specific business areas, such as marketing or finance, and have received little, if any, training on how to write a report. For these managers, writing a report is a painful chore.
But that is not the only reason why they dislike writing reports. Many complain that the superiors who demand them rarely read them, and when they do, they don’t even pay attention to their content. I know managers who have occasionally copied versions of old reports and submitted them as new without any negative consequences. The flip side of these complaints is having to read reports. Despite the fact that some managers never actually read them, a good deal are asked to read and summarize reports written by others. They complain about everything: the writing style, the seemingly endless paragraphs, the superficiality of it, and so on.
This gap between the gripes of the report writer and reader are in large part due to a lack of understanding of what is expected. Superiors will usually say something like, “I want you to report to me on any important developments. I need to know what is going on out there!” The criteria of what is important enough to report on is left undefined, however.
Over the years, I have noticed that across cultures there are different opinions on what is expected from a business report. U.S. managers, for instance, take a pragmatic, get-to-the-point approach, and expect reports to be concise and action-oriented. They don’t have time to read long explanations: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Latin American managers will usually provide long explanations that go beyond the simple facts. This is because Latin American cultures are generally referred to as high-context. In high-context cultures, the meaning of actions and words are contextualized, and context often carries much more meaning than words alone.
I have a friend who is the Latin America representative for a United States firm and has been asked by his boss to provide regular reports on sales activities. His reports are long, including detailed explanations on the context in which the events he is reporting on occur and the possible interpretations that they might have. His boss regularly answers these reports with very brief messages, telling him to “cut the crap and get to the point!”
In addition to different perspectives on what is considered important, Latin American managers often assume a hierarchical structure, where decisions are to be made by their bosses. They will explain (in detail) a given situation, and ask for guidance. U.S. managers tend to be highly annoyed by this. They expect their subordinates to take charge of their field of responsibilities, and make decisions accordingly. They want to be informed, for sure, but do not want to have to make decisions for their managers: “If I have to make decisions for him, what am I paying him for?”
On the other hand, Latin Americans are suspicious of bosses who profess that they are willing to cede some of their power. As one Latin American manager told me, “Sure, they want me to make decisions, but if something goes wrong, they will certainly blame me for not having checked with them! Anyway, if they don’t want to assume responsibilities in decision-making, why are they paid so much money?”
So what should a report contain? Only what is important. The problem is that we need to define exactly what is important. And when precise instructions are given to those who write reports, maybe, just maybe, they might actually be read and appreciated.