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How To Lead More By Doing Less

Coach through mistakes instead of taking back projects to fix.

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When I first transitioned into leadership and managing people, I hit an unexpected identity crisis. Much of the way that I was rewarded in the first half of life was for my individual contributions. It’s not just me, many of us are told that we are great fixers, we’re smart, and that we generate creative ideas. For me personally, I was often commended for my high level of responsibility to take on and complete tasks. Most of my efforts built an identity that I was the doer, the creative, the responsible one. Our ego loves to build its empire on that identity.

When I was first promoted into leadership, I had a leader tell me, “Now that you’re a leader, this is no longer about you.” It took me awhile to figure out what she meant by that. I quickly discovered what she meant when I started to delegate projects. I learned that people preferred to do things differently than I did. Their approach to projects, quality control and timelines was different than mine.  

The Fix / Overwhelm Cycle

What we tend to do as leaders, and as parents or partners, when things aren’t done the way we prefer to do them, is to step in with frustration and give our ego the fix it’s learned to enjoy from our individual contributor days. We “save the day” by taking over the task and reworking it to the way we like it.  It just feels better, faster, easier that way. While our intentions are to be helpful, what tends to happen is we inadvertently breed a bit of a learned helplessness or victim mentality. The team working for us, or our partner or children, tend to throw up their hands, “Why should I even try to complete this project (or load the dishwasher) because my boss is just going to come and fix and redo my work.” Over time, when work is continually erased and redone, the drive to give good effort is reduced.

As the leader delegating, it creates a exhausting cycle where the ego plays us on both sides. We think, “I just want to take this project back because I want things done my way. Nobody else does things as good or as fast as I can.” Thus, we do all the things until we throw up our hands in frustration and overwhelm saying, “Why am I the only one who does anything around here?”

As a leader, we have to make the shift that we can’t have it both ways. We can choose be the one who does everything and enjoys rewards as an individual contributor, or we can learn to delegate, and embrace the rewards that come from coaching people through the learning process.

3 Mindset Shifts to Do Less

Reflect on your best leader. Self-reflection is a good place to begin shifting our identity at work by reflecting on the best leader you had in your career. My sense is that this leader is not someone who hoarded work and spent their hours unraveling your efforts and redoing your work. My guess is that this inspirational leader is probably someone who delegated challenging projects to you, even those that felt a tad out of reach, and then allowed you to complete those projects, albeit with a few mistakes. And with these mistakes, they likely turned those into learning moments, with plenty of coaching through the process.

Delegate first while the stakes are low. Many leaders tell me they can’t delegate because people seem to make high-impact mistakes. This is true when we wait to delegate tasks when the stakes are high. We likely have a higher tolerance for making mistakes when the stakes are low. So, if you’re looking to develop someone’s presentation skills, what mini-forums can you place this individual in while they gain comfort in building up their skills so they can make mistakes in a low-risk environment? Then, we they are called to the table when the stakes are high, they have confident repetitions under their belt.

Done is better than perfect (but pursue clarity). A leader I worked with was struggling to get an employee to return projects with the quality and detail needed for success. We realized there was a missing conversation during the delegation process to illustrate a clear definition of success.  The ego loves to assume that everyone should just read our minds and “get it.” For example, I might ask my team member to set up a training room for an event (and just assume they know what to do). This resulted in a room with missing supplies and needs that I prefer to use for an event. A clear delegation includes a specific list of needs including supplies, room set-up details, technology requirements, etc.  

Most of your employees will come from different backgrounds, leaders, and preferences. Give the benefit of the doubt that your team is trying to do their best work based on the frameworks that they’ve been given and be clear about what success looks like for you. Communicate what high-quality deliverables look like and what timelines are expected. Clarity is critical to relieve the chaos that results from ambiguity.

A great place to start as a leader is to get comfortable delegating things that are no longer a development opportunity for you. What three things are on your delegation list and how will you shift your mindset to one that focuses on your identity as a coach, not as a doer/fixer?

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