To be an effective leader, you also have to be an effective delegator—but that can be easier said than done. People often complain about being overloaded, yet they’re hesitant to delegate, says Dana Brownlee, author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up and founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate training firm.
“Fundamentally, it’s a loss of control,” she says. “We like it the way we like it, and we like having control over how things are done. Sometimes, we don’t have enough trust in the other person, and delegating can cause anxiety and worry.”
Sometimes people also fail to delegate because it takes more time coaching someone than it does to do the task yourself. “It’s like teaching someone to fish versus giving them a fish,” says Brownlee. “You will spend more time on the front end, but the time invested in the other person will save you time in the long-term.”
Reasons aside, delegating is important. To make it easier, Brownlee tells leaders to ask three questions to ensure that they’re communicating clearly and to help them become more comfortable about letting go:
1. What is your understanding of the task?
Delegating can be like playing a game of telephone, says Brownlee. One person whispers a sentence to another, who whispers it to the next person, and so on, with the final person repeating the sentence out loud. It’s rarely what the first person said.
“You can say something, but it’s not always what the other person hears,” she says. “Asking this question ensures that what you intend for someone to do is what they understand they need to do.”
Repeating information is standard operating procedure in mission critical jobs. “An air traffic controller gives a pilot instructions, and the pilot has to repeat it back to ensure they got it correctly,” she says. “You can use the same thing in the workplace.”
To avoid feeling robotic or untrusting, Brownlee suggests putting it this way: “I know I threw a lot at you, and I know this has a lot of moving parts. To ensure I didn’t confuse you, would you mind repeating back what you heard?”
“If they tell you something that is not quite right, you’ll be so glad you can course correct,” she says.
2. What will the final deliverable actually look like?
Another area for confusion is in the interpretation of deliverables, but you won’t realize you weren’t on the same page until the end.
“We throw around labels, but we may not have the same idea of what it means,” says Brownlee. “Ask 30 people to describe a business plan, and you’ll likely have 30 different interpretations.”
Brownlee suggests addressing this question by saying, “I know we haven’t done the task yet, but it’s easy to get tripped up with vague labels. Shoot me an example of what you plan for this to look like. This will give me a point of reference, so there are no surprises for either of us at the end of the task.”
3. What will your first few steps be?
Finally, ask the person what they envision being their first three steps to start working on this task, in order to ensure they understand at a high-level what it takes to complete.
“This gives you a little insight on their thought process and ensures that they are on the right path and haven’t forgotten critical steps,” says Brownlee. “If there’s an issue, you have another opportunity to step in and say, ‘Have you thought of doing this first?’ It’s a way to avoiding having to micromanage the task.”
If you’re being delegated to:
While leaders should use these questions, if a task is delegated to you and you don’t have the information you need, you can proactively ask your boss the same questions.
“Manage up, and ensure you’re getting the clarity you need,” says Brownlee. “The reality is just because people aren’t clear doesn’t mean you won’t get the blame and your feet won’t be held to fire when you don’t deliver what they wanted. These specific questions can truly help avoid possible misunderstandings so everyone gets what they want the first time.”