"Everyone on the team is busy. I can’t ask anyone to do more.”
“It takes longer to explain how to do it than to just do it myself.”
“I don’t trust that they will get it done the way I want it.”
“What if they say no?”
Do any one of these statements sound familiar? These are all the things I used to say to myself when delegating work to my team was needed. My leadership career has ranged from being a Supervisor, managing just four front-line associates, to an Operations Chief responsible for the work of 100 employees and 17 direct reports, some at the Director level. Delegation was one of the hardest skills for me to employ as a leader.
Reflecting back on that time I had two obstacles holding me back from delegating:
My assumptions about what it meant if I delegated. I feared other people's perceptions which impacted my confidence. I questioned myself.
I didn’t know how to do it. Was there a particular approach or what, specifically, was I supposed to say? I lacked the skill.
These two things hold us back from just about everything: confidence and skills.
These two concepts both work with and against each other. If we practice skills in something, we gain confidence through experience. If we let go of our stories and perceptions, we're more likely to try something new, paving the way for practice and skill.
And, the opposite applies, if we don't practice, we won't gain confidence and if we hold onto our stories, we won't try anything new, halting from progress.
Here are a few ways to start building both confidence and skills in delegating.
Examine and Reframe Your Assumptions
What is holding you back from delegating? What is in your head or what story do you tell yourself about delegating? Consider any other thoughts you have that are in addition to the four at top of the page.
These are mental barriers and the more they are repeated in your head, the less likely you are to delegate. If I say to myself “I don’t trust others to get it done.”, then I am giving myself permission to not trust others. Same for thinking about asking for help and the person saying no. If I continue to consider that being rejected is the most likely response I will receive, I give myself permission to avoid delegating.
Once you have brought to light your assumptions, reframe them, or create a statement that adjusts your perspective into one that is focused on options. For example, if everyone on the team is busy and you can’t ask, then reframe to “I’m a leader and delegating is a part of my job. What can I do to help the team (and myself) shift priorities?” If my barrier is someone saying no, then reframe to “What if they say yes? The answer is always no if I don’t ask.”
Sometimes, you just have to problem-solve the barrier. If you feel it takes more time to train than do it yourself, put pencil to paper and tally it up. How much time do you spend in a week or a month completing the task versus how much time it will take to train someone else?
For example, one of my clients wanted to delegate responsibility for a project but would get impatient thinking about how to transfer the work. It was easier (in the short term) to do it himself. Until he tallied up the time. He spent 10-12 hours per month on that project, almost 3hrs per week. Training someone else would take about the same amount of time, 10-12hrs over the course of the month but then he was done with the responsibility. He now had 10-12hrs every month freed up for something else.
Know Your Team
Some time ago I worked with a leader who had one wall of her office covered by an immense spreadsheet. It listed the name of each member of her team, their strengths, their interests, committees or work groups, as well as spaces to write in projects or assignments. I remember asking her about it:
“The team calls it the ‘Master Mind’ but I use it to manage workload. I track who is doing what. When projects come up or I need to delegate, I select the person who is the best fit for the work based on strengths, interests, and current workload. The best part is the team can look at it whenever they want to see what is on everyone’s plate.”
This leader had developed a practice of consistent and fair assignment of work. It took the questions (and emotion) out of the act of delegating. The transparency of making the information public increases the team’s trust in her as well as each other. In today’s remote environment, this kind of spreadsheet may not work, but an Excel file saved in a public share folder would be equally as effective.
Let Go, But Be Clear
Control and lack of trust are the biggest obstacles to delegation. So, sometimes, you just have to let go. Let go of perfection, certainty, fear of other's opinions, or …but I can do it better or faster myself.”
Getting results through others (i.e. leadership) requires letting go, a lot.
It's not easy, though, letting go. What can help is being clear on your expectations and results for the work you delegate.
For example, if you are delegating market research to a member of your staff, what is the result? Do you want a memo, email, or report? How long and what information do you expect? How will that market research be used and what decisions will be made? Get specific about your expectations and set a deadline. Then, let go of the process that person takes to complete the task. They likely won’t do it your way and will certainly think about it differently. That’s good. Set the expectation for the result, let them employ their own method to get there.
The same goes for timing. If the deadline for the market research is Friday and you see them procrastinate until Thursday night, then so be it. Again, focus on results, not process.
For perfectionists, envision what “perfect” is for the project or task you want to delegate. This represents 100%. Now, consider what you have envisioned and knock it back to 90%. This is the expectation for the person to whom you have delegated. Don’t expect perfection out of others.
What is perfect, anyway? Rather, define what you expect to see.
Finally, sometimes letting go isn’t realistic because the task or project is high-profile or risky. At the point when you are explaining what you need done, also discuss how you would like to be updated and kept informed throughout the process. Be upfront that you would like to stay close to the work and reassure that it isn’t due to lack of trust. Rather, it is because of the circumstances of the project.
To quote Steve Jobs “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” This is delegating, deciding what you're not going to do, letting go, and providing clear direction.
Here's the bottom line: the best part about delegating is that it gets easier the more you do it. Frequency builds both confidence and skills.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.