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How To Delegate So Work Doesn’t Come Back to You

Do you pass work to someone only when you feel overwhelmed? This method will save you frustration and help grow new talent on your team.

How To Delegate So Work Doesn’t Come Back to You
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

It can be hard to calm your inner control freak, but the higher you climb the ladder, the more imperative it is to delegate work. It’s not always easy.

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Letting go can be difficult, says leadership coach Gail Angelo. “We’re fearful the other person won’t get it done,” she says. “We think they won’t get it done right. Or we think we can do it better. And when we do give someone something to do, we often take it back.”

Anthony Stephan experienced “boomerang delegating” firsthand. As principal with Deloitte Consulting’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications, he manages up to 100 people at a time. In his third year as partner, he realized he wasn’t his best self because he was working nonstop.

“I wasn’t creating space for myself, and I value reflection,” Stephan says. “I was holding onto projects and clients, putting a false sense of value in my doing the work. And I wasn’t creating space for others to grow.”

Delegating should increase your capacity as a leader and the capacity of your team, says Angelo. “Millennials especially want challenging work,” she says. “They need to stretch, and they need variety. When we play to their strengths and interests and give them an opportunity to develop skills, we increase their engagement.”

Angelo worked with Stephan to teach him “artful delegating.”

“A study done in 2012 found that the average worker has 37 hours of unfinished work on their desk,” says Angelo. “This creates a constant low-level stress of urgency around work. When most people delegate, they use ‘active delegating’–out of frustration, they pass the work to the person who is closest or has the least amount on their plate.”

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Artful delegation, on the other hand, shifts the perspective from time to talent.

The Right Person For The Work

The first step is selecting the person on your team who is the right fit. This kind of thinking requires that leaders know each team member’s temperament, strengths, and interests so they can best determine who might excel at the work and benefit from doing it.

Leaders can assign tasks based on strengths, or they can give team members a list of tasks and ask who would be interested in the assignment.

Stephan says he has regular conversations with his staff about the kind of opportunities they’d like to receive: “It’s the most critical step in delegating effectively,” he says. “It’s helped me understand that this person would be good for this and not the best for that.”

Uploading Instead Of Unloading

The second step is how you delegate. It’s not unloading; it’s uploading, says Angelo.

First, provide well-defined descriptions of what you want done: “Show what success looks like from your point of view,” says Angelo. “When we’re in crisis or in a time crunch, we unload stuff without thinking about it, but it’s important to spell things out.”

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Angelo says it’s a good idea to provide this information in the way the person likes to receive it–whether a conversation or written memo, for example.

“Often we communicate the way we like to receive information versus the way the other person would like to receive it,” says Angelo. “In an ideal world, delegating is done by a conversation in person or on the phone, then it’s followed up with email outlining expectations.”

Provide a description of the form in which you want the work. Share context of how the work will be used and by whom. And be specific about timing, so the person understands when the work needs to be completed.

Stephan spends time up front identifying what the person needs most to accomplish the work. “If you don’t do that, the work might come back to you,” he says.

Once you delegate, let go: “Provide space for others to complete the task,” says Angelo, who adds that letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. Set up periodic check-ins to survey the progress, see if support is needed, or determine if you need to hit the reset button.

“This minimizes the chances that work will boomerang back to you,” says Angelo. “If people can begin to master the art of delegation and be proactive versus reactive, their effectiveness grows enormously.”

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Stephan says artful delegating has made him a better leader: “The biggest thing I learned is that I could be effective without being in every meeting and without leading every client relationship,” he says. “My job was to be a good coach.”