Delegation is a key productivity tool. So why don't we do it more? In response to a listener question, we take a look at how delegation can help us to be more productive, and how we can improve our delegation skills.
Delegation–the why and the how?
Recently, Amy raised this question in the Facebook group:
“Laura, have you done a podcast on delegating? I listened to your podcast recently where you said you were hiring a VA. I've been thinking about hiring one myself. However, I also just struggle with delegation in general; what can I give away, how do I oversee that quality without micromanaging, how to onboard that as needed help, etc. Any podcasts or thoughts from fellow productive women are much appreciated.”
The topic of delegation is relevant to me personally as it's something I’ve struggled with throughout my adult life. I’ve had a secretary and legal assistants at the law office, and now I have hired a part-time virtual assistant for the podcast, so I need to be able to delegate appropriately, but it's difficult for me.
It doesn’t seem like it’s just Amy and I who struggle with delegation. According to one article, “The inability to delegate is one of the biggest problems of managers at all levels; nevertheless, delegation is one of the most powerful tools for a successful business leader.”
Though a lot of the literature I read and will cite in this post refers to delegation in the corporate context, it is not just applicable to executives. I'll discuss how it can apply in our home life, for example, when we’re raising our kids.
What is delegation?
According to one writer, “Delegation is the on-going process by which a leader assigns additional tasks to a subordinate in such a way that there is acceptance of responsibility for the assigned tasks.”
The same article also points out what delegation is not: “Delegation is not the assignment of routine tasks to anyone who happens to be available. There is a need to assess strengths, weaknesses, and previous experience of all available personnel and then match them with tasks that will utilize their strengths and experience.” In other words, it’s not just about offloading your work to make your life easier.
Lisa A. Bing, founder of Bing Consulting Group in Brooklyn, New York, is quoted as saying, “It’s not handing off your dirty work. It’s empowering others to develop their skills, and it’s a means of leveraging the talents of your team. You delegate well when you fully believe and recognize that the people around you add value to your work.”
The conclusion from my research is that, like everything else in life, it’s important to be intentional about how, when, and to whom you delegate.
Why does delegation matter? What purpose does it serve?
1. It benefits you personally and professionally
- It saves you time.
- It lets you focus on the things only you can do – the core elements of your job.
- It helps you develop important managerial/leadership skills.
- It allows you to have a greater impact by multiplying your influence – as noted in the Harvard Business Review:
“While it may seem difficult, elevating your impact requires you to embrace an unavoidable leadership paradox: You need to be more essential and less involved. When you justify your hold on work, you’re confusing being involved with being essential. But the two are not the same — just as being busy and being productive are not necessarily equal. Your involvement is a mix of the opportunities, mandates, and choices you make regarding the work you do. How ancillary or essential you are to the success of that portfolio depends on how decisively and wisely you activate those around you.”
2. It’s as valuable to the people you delegate to and to the larger organization, whether corporate or home
- It lets others contribute, creating sense of value, satisfaction, and engagement.
- It helps others learn. It furthers their personal/professional development by enabling them to learn new skills and creating a send of empowerment to contribute to the organization.
- It builds trust and teamwork.
Why don’t we do it?
- We hesitate to “give orders”
- We believe it’s quicker to do it ourselves, or you don’t have the time to train people. (This is a short-sighted and ultimately an unproductive approach.)
- We think asking for help is a sign of weakness. Many women in business feel like they need to avoid being seen as weak or incapable, and that the way to do that is to power through no matter what.
- We believe we’re the only ones who care enough or are capable enough to do it right.
- We don’t trust others to not let us down and put us in a bind or make us look bad.
One excellent article titled “The Messy Delegation Dilemma” addresses the concern about having to clean up a mess if the person you've delegated to fails. It asks some important questions to ask ourselves when we’re hesitating to delegate for this reason:
“Am I more concerned about how I will look or how the employee will look?
If it’s more about my image than about helping someone grow, I need to reevaluate my leadership priorities.
Will what the employee gains in experience outweigh the consequence to the organization?
Any miss or failure is likely to have some impact on the organization but is it one that can be easily absorbed in order to help the employee learn from it? Will the short-term cost be worth the long-term gain? Count the cost and make the best decision for everyone involved.
Will letting the ball drop allow them to learn? Will it develop them further? Sometimes it will. Other times you can teach them just as well by explaining the potential pros and cons of an idea or action before it’s taken.”
- We like being the indispensable one. We fear that if we let other people step up, we won’t be needed anymore.
- We don’t want to lose control of the process or the situation.
Whatever the reason, remember that there is a price to pay for hanging on to tasks, such as increased stress and health consequences, lower quality work, less time to do the things we’re best at, and less engaged and poorly trained team members, including our kids.
How can we improve?
1. Practice delegating.
Like everything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Take small steps to start. Choose small things to delegate. Gradually increase the scope and importance of the tasks to delegate as you gain confidence in yourself as a delegator as well as the people you are delegating to.
2. Watch those in your sphere who do it well.
If there’s someone around you who does this well, take them out to lunch and pick their brain a little bit. If you struggle with delegating around the house, do you know a mom who is good at it? Ask her what her secret is. Watch her, talk to her, and find out how she does it.
3. Study resources that offer tips and suggestions on how to delegate better.
Anju Divakaran, VP at Blue Bull Energy LLC and member of the TPW Facebook community wrote an article titled “Delegation 101,” in which she shares some great questions to ask yourself in evaluating what and when to delegate:
- Make a list of all the tasks that are on your plate, and the expected end result.
- What are your expectations on how the task needs to be done? Does it need to be perfect (kitchen redesign) vs adequate (folding laundry)? Do you only care about the end result or are you very specific on the process to be followed?
- What is the cost of failure on these tasks?
- Is there time to recover from a failure?
- Is the task critical to your job/business and can materially impact your goals?”
Her article goes into some very helpful and practical suggestions for learning to delegate by starting with non-mission-critical tasks and expanding from there.
“Guidelines” for successful and productive delegation
- Choose the right person – match tasks to skills and interests. But sometimes you can’t know if a person is right until you give it a shot. Don’t use uncertainty about who’s right as an excuse to just do it yourself.
- Don’t delegate tasks or projects that require your specific expertise. Remember, though: not everything requires your specific expertise.
- Don’t only delegate the unpleasant tasks.
“Don’t confuse delegating work with getting rid of the boring tasks you don’t want to deal with. When delegating tasks, do so in a way that helps others learn and thrive. Give people tasks that align with their areas of expertise and interests. In addition to helping free up some time for you, your teammate will know you have put thought into delegating the task especially to them, instead of just dumping it on whoever is around.”
- Don’t delegate something you can’t clearly articulate. Spend the time to think through exactly what outcome you want. Learn to describe what you need.
- Give clear instructions about the goal, the expected deliverable, the deadline, etc.
p style=”padding-left: 60px;”>“[Lisa] Bing says the first step to delegating gracefully is to get clear about what you want the outcome of the project to be. Next, identify the elements or features that need to happen in order to achieve outcomes. Also think about who around has the requisite skills, talents, and knowledge. Finally, outline the milestones or indicators that you will use to track progress. As Bing explains, “No one of us, no matter how skilled and talented we are, can do it all. Nobody shows up fully loaded. If you’re not delegating, you’re not managing, and the costs to the manager personally, as well as to the business, are exponential.” (from The Art of Graceful Delegation)
- Don’t micromanage. Give the delegee some ownership of the task/project. Make the desired outcome clear, but give them room to achieve it their own way.
“Treat your subordinates like you want your boss to treat you.”
- Make time to follow up – “observe, review and coach”
“Delegation is not the abandonment of tasks. As a leader, you are still ultimately responsible therefore time should be set aside to observe and meet with the subordinate for follow-through and review of the delegated areas. This follow-through will give you the opportunity to coach the subordinate in his new assigned tasks. Time spent with your subordinate will also provide you with the information to decide whether to intervene or to allow him to fail and learn from his mistakes.”
How does this apply outside the workforce?
To give you a short answer: “Exactly the same.”
All these things apply in raising kids and running a household. Training and delegating tasks to our kids help them develop life skills. Also, it gives them ownership of family matters, gets them more engaged and feeling more like part of a team. You can start young and expand as they get older.
- A preschooler can learn to be responsible for feeding the family pet.
- Elementary age kids can pack lunches for self and siblings and do parts of the laundry, or plan and prepare a simple meal each week.
- High school kids can be responsible for car maintenance – regular washing, gassing it up each week, etc. My kids, as part of the tradeoff for the privilege of driving, would run errands, pick up groceries, chauffeur their siblings.
- Planning a vacation? Delegate to one of the kids to research potential activities or lodgings.
- Delegate cooking or laundry.
Delegation is a skill that can be developed and, when exercised appropriately, can both benefit the people we delegate to and can reclaim some of our time for activities that are important to us.
There are other ways to buy time back. Delegation might be seen as one kind of “outsourcing,” meaning you’re getting things done by other people. We’ve talked about that some in past episodes, and I plan to do an episode soon on that broader topic. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out Natalie Eckdahl’s Bix Chix podcast. She just released two episodes on outsourcing; episodes 300 and 301 that are full of tips on outsourcing.
What do you think?
Do you struggle with delegating at work or at home, or have you come up with some approaches that work for you? Please share them in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links
- 7 Top Reasons to Delegate in your Workplace
- Why Delegate & How To
- The Art of Graceful Delegation
- To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well
- Why Should Leaders Delegate
- The Messy Delegation Dilemma
- Delegation 101
- Leadership: The Importance of Knowing How to Delegate
- The Importance of Delegation
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