Don’t Ditch or Direct: Key Secrets to Delegating Effectively
I’m sitting in a café across from Louise, an accomplished and highly skilled coaching client, who heads the legal department at an insurance company. Right as we are about to dive into her issue of being overworked, another coffeehouse patron starts loudly complaining about his boss to a friend: “Can you believe it? My supervisor keeps dumping tasks on me without any directions and when I send my finished work over, he is never happy. Why does he make me do it then?” The friend chimes in, just as exasperated: “That’s nothing! My boss sends me ten emails a day with instructions and then calls me after every email to check on my progress. He doesn’t trust anyone to have a thought on their own!” Louise looks at me pointedly: “See! That’s why I’m so swamped. I don’t want to be either of those bosses. So I just end up doing everything myself instead of delegating it. It’s faster anyway.”
Is it, really? By not letting her direct reports do any valuable work, Louise is not only stifling the team’s growth, but also overworking herself and putting her own career progress in jeopardy. If her managers do not see her creating leverage and adding greater value, then they are unlikely to give her more responsibility. Louise needs to learn to delegate effectively which means she needs a different perspective on how to get others to do work.
Good Intention, Misguided Action
All three bosses in this story had good intentions and yet, they are all causing immense frustration for their team members. If you simply unload work on a direct report and let them take a shot in the dark, that attempt will almost always miss. Thus, you’ll most likely have to redo the work yourself, which leaves your employee feeling disempowered, incapable and undervalued. On the other hand, if you micromanage and dictate every step, most of the work will still be on your plate, and your team member will never get the chance to work independently, develop original ideas and grow to take on a bigger scope of responsibilities. Again, both parties are left frustrated.
So how can you break out of the trap? The problem lies in the etymology of the word delegate: in the original Latin, delegare meant ‘to send out as a representative’. Thus, there are very few cases when you can truly delegate. After all, no one will ever be a perfect stand-in for your agenda, and they shouldn’t be. However, you can get others to do work without frustrating both of you. Here are the steps.
Easy as ABC: Assignment, Boundaries, Conditions
The answer lies in first creating a mutually agreed outcome with the boundary conditions that are necessary (e.g., timeline and costs). Whenever you are delegating a task, make sure you are on the same page about three pieces of information:
Assignment: What is the goal we mutually agree on? Communicate the desired outcome clearly, so that your team member understands the scope of their involvement and the best-case scenario.
Boundaries: What is the budget? In what time frame does this need to be done? What do we absolutely want to avoid?
Conditions: What is non-negotiable? This could be a concrete detail you strongly care about and want your team member to pay special attention to. Or it could be something you know your boss will want to be kept informed about.
By discussing these three cornerstones, you ensure that you and your team member have the same agenda and understanding of what success looks like.
How do you get the team member to do the work without losing track of what’s happening? The secret lies in asking questions that help your team member think through the steps, without leaving them feeling disempowered or incompetent. If you tell someone what to do, they will likely not remember and they will not feel trusted. If you leave them alone to figure everything out by themselves, they may get to a solution but probably not as quickly as you need. However, if you ask questions, your direct report can think through options while you guide that thinking along the way.
For example, suppose you want to assign a project to your team member. You might start with these questions:
“What steps do you think need to be taken in order for this project to be effective?”
“What timeline is reasonable for each step?”
“What else should we be thinking of?”
“What metrics could we use to measure whether we are on the right track?”
If you think they are overlooking something important, you can redirect their attention with another question: “How about the stakeholders?” “How much time will the other department need to review your proposal?”
Your team member will feel smart and trusted because you agreed with their steps. In addition, they will remember the plan because they came up with it. You are now confident about the success of the project and have a natural way to touch base on progress.
With the plan and timeline in place, identify an appropriate place for a touch point. This allows you to remain up to speed, ask questions where needed and provide any additional insight you might have gained since the start. In these touch point sessions, your role is to listen, ask questions and avoid directing.
When your manager calls wanting an update on the project, you are ready. You know what has been done, what is next by what timeline, and how progress will be reviewed along the way.
Take Your Time to Save Time
Many expert leaders like Louise are reluctant to implement good delegating practice into their workflow because they think it will take too much time – a dangerous fallacy. In the end, they spend valuable hours on tasks their subordinates should have been able to complete instead of doing innovative, creative, and future-oriented work where they add the greatest value. Since they failed to develop the team, the company not only misses out on great talent, but must also replace employees who are not motivated to do their best, and who inevitably start looking for a new job with more development opportunities.
It takes less time to invest in someone than it would take to replace them. In addition, if you start delegating effectively, your team members will learn, be engaged and love having you as a supervisor. All of this means you will cultivate a reputation of being a great manager, and thus attract even more opportunities.
Don’t wait until you have time to make a change. Instead, invest a little time now to get a great reward that will sustainably benefit you in the long run. And with the leverage you have gained, you can make even more valuable investments into the future.