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Delegation Done Right

We know we should delegate, but we often don't. Here are 6 tips to help you delegate like a pro.

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Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels

Are you trying to do it all yourself? Is the weight of everything on your shoulders? Asking for help isn’t your standard MO?

If so, I’m not surprised.

For my clients, who are typically ambitious, high achieving people, delegation is often a weak point. But delegation is a skill that’s worth learning to do right, because it’s not sustainable for you to do everything. (And it’s not fun either!). In fact, delegation is one of the best levers we have for creating more time.

And yet, we avoid delegation. Why?

(And if you’re reading this thinking, “I’d love to delegate, but I don’t have anyone to delegate to!”, pop on down to the last section.)

Why we avoid delegation

I find that most people avoid delegation for one of 2 reasons:

  1. They think they can do it better or faster themselves.
  2. They don’t want to overburden others.

For #1, it’s often true – at first. Yes, you can do something that you’ve been doing better and faster than someone else who hasn’t done it before. But once they know how to do it, they’ll likely be just as good/fast. Training them is a short term cost for a long term benefit. I often tell my clients that they should delegate something that someone else can do 70% as well as they can. (Is your perfectionist mind shuddering??) I’m not suggesting you accept a 70% end product, but you can coach them towards better performance. And soon they might be doing it better and faster than you.

For #2, while this is an empathetic viewpoint, I find its often overblown. In fact, often people are hungry for opportunity and experience. Something that may seem like drudgery to you can often be just the thing someone else has been vying for.

Why you should delegate more

Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate the point above:

One of my clients had to speak at a tech conference on behalf of his company. He’d done many of these tech talks before, but wasn’t looking forward to this one; it seemed like just one more thing on his already very busy plate. While he was a reluctant delegator in general, he realized that given his other priorities, he was not going to be able to put his best foot forward at the conference and decided he’d have to delegate it to one of his direct reports. He was apologetic when delegating; thinking that he was burdening his teammate.

However, when the teammate returned from the conference, he made a point to stop by my client’s office and thank him sincerely for the opportunity. Turns out, he’d been wanting to have such an opportunity for awhile now. He saw this act of delegation as a gift. The saying “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” comes to mind.

People crave growth in their careers. In fact, according to one study, 76% of employees are looking for career growth opportunities. So, the odds are in your favor that your team will appreciate the opportunities that you can provide to learn a new skill, take on a new project, etc.

Bonus points if you’re taking the time to know those you work with well enough to understand what types of roles, responsibilities and growth they are looking for. If you’re delegating to your kids (more below on that), keep an eye towards the skills your kids will thank you for teaching them later (often much, much later).

If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around delegating, flip the script. Think of delegation as a gift, not a burden. Delegation is a tool for growth. And we all want to grow.

What to delegate

Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that delegation is not a dirty word and, in fact, is something worth doing more of. And you might be thinking “OK, but what should I be delegating?”.

Ask yourself the following questions to help figure out what you can delegate:

  • Am I the only person who can do this?
  • Is there someone who could do this better than me?
  • Where am I the bottleneck?
  • What projects would provide career development opportunities for my reports?
  • What are time consuming, yet repeatable tasks/processes that I could teach to someone else? (Freeing myself not just once, but forever.)

Take a look at your task list and, with this list of questions in mind, figure out what’s reasonable for you to delegate.

How to Delegate

1. Ask, don’t demand

We often think of delegation as as act of telling, or demanding. We think of it as “dumping work”. Instead, what if you thought of delegation as a collaboration? When you delegate to someone, ask them kindly. Tell them why you think they’re the right person for the job.

Language to try:

I’d love for you to take on X because of Y. Is this something you have the bandwidth for?

2. Set clear expectations

Be really clear about your expectations. An important distinction is that you want to delegate the “what” (aka, the end product) not the “how”. If you delegate the how, people are very likely to feel micromanaged and that won’t feel good to either of you.

Being more clear about what your expectations are, up front, will allow you to be less in the weeds later and have to “fix” fewer things.

Sometimes we think that being direct is being rude, but time and time again, surveys show that people actually prefer to know what’s clearly expected of them. You can be clear, direct and kind at the same time. And if something you are asking for is directive and not a suggestion, make sure that’s clear, too, so people don’t have to try to assume what you want from them. You don’t want to leave people thinking “Well if that’s what you wanted, why didn’t you tell me that at the beginning?”

You also want to set very clear expectations when it comes to timing. And here you get another chance to be collaborative. If you leave it vague, one of 2 things will happen. Either people will assume it’s urgent and drop everything to get it done. Or they will assume it’s not, and you’ll be frustrated a week later when you haven’t had an update. It’s also a great idea to let people know how much time you expect them to spend, if at all possible.

Language to try:

I’d love it if this were done by X? Is that reasonable? Does this timing work for you?

What timeline are you able to commit to on X?

I expect this should take X hours/days/weeks. If you find it’s taking longer, please let me know and we can chat about options.

3. Confirm understanding

Once you’ve delegated, now it’s time to make sure you communicated clearly. Don’t assume you’ve been understood.

Language to try:

Here’s what I need/am expecting. Is that clear? Do you have any questions?

4. Trust, but verify

It can be tempting to think that once you’ve delegated something, you never have to think about it again. But we live in the real world. People make mistakes. Sometimes things slip. And the buck still stops with you.

So keep track of what you’ve delegated, and to whom. Agree on milestones or check in dates in advance, and if you don’t get a proactive update, check in.

5. Avoid last minute delegation, if possible

Delegation shouldn’t be a strategy of last resort. One mistake I see people make is that they wait until they themselves have no time to do something, and then they delegate it to someone else at the very last minute. And now that person is left struggling and working late. It’s bad form, and definitely IS dumping work. Delegate mindfully and in advance.

6. Give thanks

Don’t forget to express appreciation. At the beginning and the end. Yes, delegation is a gift. But it’s a gift of time to you as well. Say thank you.

Delegating to your kids

If you’ve got kids, you’ve got (little) people to delegate to. And if you’re not already delegating as much household work as you can to your kids, I’m going to bet that the number one reason is the same as above: you think you’ll do it better and faster yourself.

And in the case of kids, you are absolutely right. But that shouldn’t stop you.

Kids are terrible at chores, especially in the beginning. But they’ll never get better without practice. Yes, you’ll have to let go of perfection, at least for awhile. But I think it’s well worth it.

My kids are responsible for cleaning the kitchen (twice a day during COVID), which includes doing the dishes. The floor is always wet. The dishes are often greasy. And then they have to do them again.

But I’m not doing it. Which means I’ve got an extra 45 minutes to an hour a day to use how I want.

I have a vivid memory of my first week of college of a dumbfounded boy standing in the middle of the communal laundry room. He had no idea where to start. I want to ensure my kids don’t find themselves in such a position. Which is why they do their own laundry right now. (And I get another hour back to myself, because I’m not doing it.)

With kids, it’s about responsibility as much as it’s about the “help”.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a good breakdown of what chores kids can do, by age.

If I haven’t convinced you that your kids should do more chores, read Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise and Adult. It just might scare you into action. (And if you don’t have time for that, watch her TED Talk – on double speed 🙂 )

What to do when you don’t have the power to delegate

Ok, so you’ve got no direct reports, no kids, no one to delegate to at all?

Let’s talk about how to set boundaries when other people try to delegate to you, when you’ve already got a full plate. Instead of simply agreeing, and then overworking yourself try the following language:

I’d love to help with that! Given my current workload, what should I deprioritize so that I’m able to meet your timeline on this new project.

Sounds good! Given my current workload, I’ll be able to get to that by [date]. Does that timing work for you?

Given my current workload, if I take this on, I’ll need to reprioritize some other items. Can we chat about what makes most sense? Or maybe there’s someone else who has immediate bandwidth to take this on?

What’s one thing you can delegate this week?

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