How to delegate successfully – without becoming a busy fool

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Written by Susy Roberts on 13 January 2021 in Features
Features

Delegation's what you need, says Susy Roberts.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the looming impact of Brexit have placed many organisations under unprecedented financial pressures. These pressures have sent managers into a tailspin of frenzied activity; how do you prioritise when everything is a priority? The result is to be the proverbial busy fool; working exceptionally long hours with no breaks, but never seeming to achieve anything.

This is clearly unsustainable: work-related stress, depression and anxiety have rocketed in the last year, with 828,000 workers affected and 17.9m working days lost.

There’s unlikely to be a large injection of cash to fund an increased workforce, so to safeguard organisations – and our health - we need to learn how to work smarter, not harder. But there’s no quick fix: we have to put the tools in place that allow us to share the burden and keep people productive without overloading them to the point of burnout.

Assess and prepare

Delegation isn’t simply a case of sharing your workload out. You can’t dump the contents of your in-tray on the desks of your colleagues and expect them to get on with it - that’s abdication. You need to have teams and structures in place, so everyone knows what’s expected of them, and you know who the best person is for the job.

As soon as you’ve identified the need to offload some of your to-do list, you need to assess the circumstances as they are. Who is in your team? What skills do they have? What’s their workload like? Do their personal circumstances allow them to take on more work?

We have to put the tools in place that allow us to share the burden and keep people productive without overloading them to the point of burnout.

More than likely, you’ll need to provide training before you can start delegating – even if it’s a perfunctory half hour talking through the format of a spreadsheet. But even if you need to take someone away from their work for a day or more to train them up, ultimately you end up with a more skilled person and a better-equipped team.

It’s better to acknowledge a lack of resources and take one for the team while you put those resources in place than try to offload work to people who aren’t prepared or trained for it.

Preview, check in and review

Even after training, people will still need a steer now and then. Ongoing coaching is essential to ensure people are on track. This means discussing how they’re going to achieve the delegated task, reviewing where they’re up to at regular intervals, and assessing the work they submit to ensure it’s done correctly.

 

In a workplace where everyone is busy, mental wellbeing needs to be a priority. This means giving people the space and the support to be able to push back when they have too much. Ensure regular discussions take place during the task or project to address this issue, and if it’s not brought up, explicitly ask people if they’re coping.

Working remotely means it’s easy to miss signs you’d see in person, so be direct and reassure people they can be honest with their feedback. Delegating tasks to someone who’ll sign off sick a week later isn’t going to help anyone.

Don’t micromanage

A common mistake I see is people thinking they’re delegating, but they’re actually micromanaging. Coaching allows people to complete their work feeling supported and knowing they can flag any issues without fear of recrimination. Micromanaging stifles people and makes them feel helpless and untrusted.

I saw a classic example of this recently: someone senior had left suddenly, so their superior simply divided up the workload among the rest of the team while they went through the recruitment process.


Rather than coaching and supporting them through what was required, the leader was pushing people to meet the deadlines of their new projects, asking for detail about what had been done on a daily basis. The result was a very unhappy and confused team with no idea of priorities, their previously planned schedule seemingly abandoned in favour of the added items.

If you’re going to delegate to someone, you have to be sure that they’re up to the task, that they have the capacity to take it on and that there’s a relationship of trust that goes both ways. Giving people a long list of actions and then demanding to know where they’re up to with each one isn’t delegating, it’s controlling.

Controlling relationships of any form aren’t healthy and will result in resentment, anxiety and ultimately a total breakdown of the relationship.

Refer upwards

It’s important to remember that the buck doesn’t always stop with you. If everyone is at capacity, there’s no room in the calendar or budget for training and people are dropping like flies, then it’s a resourcing issue for the senior leadership team.

Don’t be a martyr – you’ll be the next one to drop if you try. Constantly assess the situation and report to your line manager, whether they’re on the shop floor or in the boardroom. Trying to absorb issues instead of reporting them won’t help in the long run.

Working out of hours to keep up to date – particularly when you’re not visible – won’t result in flowers and a thank you note. If you appear to be coping and absorbing your workload, you’ll be the person people keep delegating to.

Inevitably, you’ll end up being the next person adding to the sickness statistics.

 

About the author

Susy Roberts is an executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts
 

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